Does civil rights activist Cesar Chavez belong alongside Benjamin Franklin as an example of a model American citizen? Should Texas schoolchildren be required to identify Rush Limbaugh? How big a place does the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall — most famous for his victory in integrating the nation's schools — deserve in the history books?
The conservative-dominated Texas State Board of Education debates changes beginning Thursday to the social studies curriculum of the state's 4.6 million K-12 students, and both conservatives and liberals say the other is attempting to rewrite history.
The discussions are important because the standards the board sets will be used to develop state tests and by textbook publishers who develop material for the nation based on one of the largest markets, Texas. Past questions the board has wrestled with include the merits of the theory of evolution and whether a woman should be depicted in a textbook holding a briefcase or putting a cake in the oven.
The board has been a battleground for social conservatives and liberal watchdogs since Christian conservatives began building their presence from one seat 15 years ago to seven of the 10 GOP seats now — including the incoming chairwoman.
Some of the proposed changes in the social studies standards, known as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, include referring to the United States as a republic instead of a democracy and requiring students to be able to identify prominent conservatives such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Eagle Forum president Phyllis Schlafly. Some of those behind the proposed changes cast the debate as a way to nudge conservative figures into what they say are liberal-dominated lessons.
"Liberals overwhelmingly outnumber those who are publicly known as conservatives," wrote David Barton, a Republican activist on the board-appointed advisory panel, in board documents about the proposals. He counted 16 liberals in classroom lessons, including former President Bill Clinton, farmworkers' advocate Dolores Huerta and feminist Betty Friedan, to seven conservatives, such as former presidents Ronald Reagan and Teddy Roosevelt and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
The changes to Chavez and Marshall's role in class have generated some of the loudest debate. Chavez, a leader of the United Farm Workers whose advocacy led to gains for union laborers, is a popular figure in Texas, where dozens of streets, schools and buildings are named in his honor. A statue of him even stands a few blocks away from the board's headquarters.
Marshall isn't without his own honors: Texas Southern University put the Thurgood Marshall School of Law in his name.
Teachers guided by plans
Still, members of an expert panel convened by the board suggested earlier this year that class time spent on Chavez and Marshall should be minimized. After teachers and other organizations complained, a committee suggested moving Chavez from a list of model citizens — which includes Benjamin Franklin — to a list of those who have contributed to society, including Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and former President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The distinction has no impact on classroom time because teachers make their own plans, but teachers are guided by the board's standards, so could emphasize or de-emphasize historical figures in class depending on what the board says.
"To have Cesar Chavez listed next to Ben Franklin is ludicrous. Chavez is hardly the kind of role model that ought to be held up to our children as someone worthy of emulation," said Peter Marshall, an evangelist minister on the panel who originally proposed removing Chavez completely.
Board member Rick Agosto, D-San Antonio, said the talk of Cesar Chavez disturbs him.
Chavez and Thurgood Marshall "played a real crucial part in our nation's fighting for liberty, which is really what America's been founded on," Agosto said. "To hear comments like that just shows the intelligence level of certain individuals."
Under a compromise, Marshall, the first the first black appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court and who as an attorney argued the landmark case that led to desegregation efforts in U.S. public schools, would be included in first-grade social studies classes and eighth-grade courses about U.S. history after reconstruction. Nothing is final; debates on all of the proposals could take a year.
How the proposals will fare isn't clear. Earlier this year, the conservative bloc was handed a partial defeat when the board decided that Texas schools would no longer have to teach the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution, but would be encouraged to consider "all sides" of scientific theories. Shortly after that, the Legislature refused to keep Don McLeroy, an ardent conservative, on as chairman.
Attempts to count the number of liberal figures against conservative figures in schools is "a foolish way of judging history," said Eric Foner, a liberal American history professor at Columbia University. "What you're looking for is an understanding of concepts and trends."