For Ted Cruz it was not merely a narrow recommendation from an educational advisory committee to remove what they called a “value-charged word”. It was instead the latest example of out-of-touch liberals trying to sabotage American greatness.
The Texas senator and failed Republican 2016 presidential hopeful tweeted his delight when the state’s board of education spurned the suggestion that teachers stop referring to the Alamo’s defenders as “heroic” in their defeat by Mexican forces. “They remain a symbol of valor for all Americans,” Cruz wrote.
While the battle of the Alamo ended on 6 March 1836, today the Texas culture wars rage on with no end in sight. A deliberative body that in other parts of the world would be a wonkish, anonymous collection of independent civil servants is, in Texas, a nakedly partisan group that often attracts the gaze of national and international media.
Cruz penned an opinion piece for Fox News ahead of last week’s decision that managed to link a debate that was in part a technical question of avoiding repetition in the seventh-grade social studies curriculum to the NFL’s national anthem kneeling controversy.
“Somehow, in an age when professional athletes disrespect our flag only to get millions of dollars in advertising deals, and our public forums are increasingly devoted to tearing down our national legacy rather than building it up, it is not surprising that some bureaucrats rewriting schoolbooks should try to eliminate one more source of American pride from our schools,” he wrote.
Disagreements over curriculum contents are nothing new. But when it lurched to the right as conservatives responded to Barack Obama’s first term and the growth of the Tea Party movement, the Texas board of education acted as a canary in the coalmine for the national hyperpartisan political era of pliable truths and politicians scorning expertise as they smash norms to advance anti-multicultural populist agendas.
Just as Republicans used gerrymandering to reshape electoral boundaries according to their interests, so too were public school textbooks moulded in new directions that brought accusations of bias from the left.
“Last week was a perfect demonstration of why it’s a really bad idea for politicians to write curriculum standards that guide what public schools teach. Because then you end up with history that’s decided by a majority vote instead of by facts and historical accuracy. But that’s what we’ve got in Texas, unfortunately,” said Dan Quinn of the Texas Freedom Network, a left-leaning advocacy group.
If we misinform students about our history we’re not arming them with information we need to make decisions as responsible citizensDan Quinn
“What we learn in our public schools informs our worldview, it informs our perspective of the world around us and how we view issues and how we view each other. If we misinform students about our history we’re not arming them with information we need to make decisions as responsible citizens in the future.”
The board is composed of five Democrats and 10 Republicans who are publicly elected by district. Donna Bahorich, a Republican from Houston who is a former staffer for Texas’s rightwing lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, has been chair since 2015. She was named chair by Texas’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott, who tweeted before last week’s meetings: “Stop political correctness in our schools. Of course Texas schoolchildren should be taught that Alamo defenders were ‘Heroic’!”
Other preliminary decisions by the board included removing mandatory references to Hillary Clinton and Helen Keller from classrooms. Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential candidate, was also excised, but not Billy Graham, the evangelist who died this year. The civil rights activist Dolores Huerta was added.
Teachers told the Dallas Morning News they used a points system to grade numerous historical figures on their impact and eliminated low scorers in order to cut back on the number of people and ensure pupils were not simply learning long lists of names by rote.
“We are doing what we call a streamlining. A streamlining has a goal to ensure that standards are focused on only the knowledge and skills that are essential in each course or grade level,” Bahorich told the Guardian.
Though the board agreed to place more emphasis on the expansion of slavery as the main cause of the civil war, it retained the assertion that states’ rights and sectionalism were significant factors, as well as the influence of Moses and Judaeo-Christian tradition on the country’s founding.
“In Texas, you don’t mess with the Alamo and you don’t mess with our Christian heritage,” Jonathan Saenz, president of the conservative advocacy group Texas Values, said in a statement.
In 2010, conservatives on the board attempted to rename the slave trade the “Atlantic triangular trade” – then in 2015 an outcry prompted a publisher to revise a textbook passage describing African slaves taken to the US as immigrant “workers”.
The next year, a Republican candidate who claimed that Obama was once a drug-addled male prostitute and that pre-kindergarten programmes are a federal plot to promote gay marriage came close to winning a seat on the board.
Texas has one of the worst-performing and worst-funded public school systems in the nation.
More than half of the 5.4 million students are Hispanic and the percentage of non-white pupils is fast increasing. Still, final approval for a Mexican American studies course was only granted this year, after a debate that included whether it should be named “An Overview of Americans of Mexican Descent” rather than use the term Mexican American. A proposed textbook published by a former board member was rejected in 2016 after objections to passages such as: “Mexican laborers were not reared to put in a full day’s work so vigorously [as European or American workers].”