The Texas school board isn’t as powerful as you think

Its textbook clout has waned but reporters are still writing as though it hasn't

Moses was a major political influence on the Founding Fathers? Scientists “disagree about what is causing climate change”? And they further predict that upcoming cooling years will counter global warming and “even things out”?

These were the kind of specious claims that the Texas Board of Education debated before it voted to approve 89 textbooks and digital programs for its public school system late last month. What seems like a wonky local ed story made national news, because Texas’s massive market size means that its textbook preferences influence what ends up in classrooms all over the country—weird science and all.

So the familiar framing goes, at least. But this narrative obscures crucial details which, taken together, reveal quite a different story. The Texas school board’s influence over what students are learning across the nation—and even in its own state—is actually fast diminishing. As far back as 2010, professionals in the textbook industry were already telling the Texas Tribune that the story about the state school board’s influence was “an urban myth.”

“For many years, the common narratives about the state textbook market was that the publishers create curriculum for the largest states and often ignore the smaller ones,” said Jay Diskey, executive director of the school division of the Association of American Publishers. “I think that was probably true a number years ago, in era of what we call ‘national editions’ … But this isn’t 1985 anymore, or, for that matter, 1995.”

Texas schools serve more than 5 million children, and books are used for about 10 years before new ones are approved. It’s the second-biggest purchaser of K-12 textbooks in the nation, and the school board has become increasingly polarized. When Texas adopted new schoolbooks in 2002, the ideological motivations behind the debates were clear when the board objected to, for example, a textbook mentioning that overpopulation can endanger the planet’s health. Publishers withdrew dozens of proposed books and revised several others to please the board.

This is alarming stuff. So it’s no surprise that when the Texas textbook process reignited for a new vote this fall, reporters again jumped on the story. When science education groups pushed back against climate change denialism in proposed social studies textbooks, it made headlines—and so did the news that they actually prevailed in getting the books corrected.

But other baseless claims—including Moses’ role in building America—passed through. And the ensuing coverage looks awfully familiar. “Texas school board approves textbooks criticized for religious bent,” proclaimed Reuters, in a distinct echo of 2002. “As Texas goes, so goes the nation,” wrote Vice. And a Brownsville Herald editorial contends that, “Versions of textbooks that cater to the demands of Texas officials then end up in classrooms throughout the country, whether those states’ officials agree with them or not.”

Of course, journalists should cast a critical eye on the Texas board, or any public officials anywhere, who present distorted views of science and history to their constituents. But despite its portrayal in recent news, the Texas school board is no longer the 800-pound gorilla it once was.

“Frankly,” said Diskey, “(the Texas textbook story) is a theory that we feel is often distorted by advocacy groups on both sides of the issue. Groups on both the right and left do a certain amount of fundraising around the curriculum wars in Texas, which leads to a lot of outreach to national media in particular. They—how should I say this—they don’t look at the story real closely.”

If they did, they would see that Texas schools do not have to use the textbooks that the board approves. In 2011, a new state law made it possible for school districts to use textbooks that are not on the board-approved list. Many (though not most) districts are already reveling in their newfound flexibility. As the Associated Press reported on Nov. 15, those schools opt out of the traditional method of purchasing, in which the board directly supplies them with books, and instead they obtain materials independently. They can choose books on their own, from the list made by the state’s education commissioner, or from the board’s list, and pay for them separately. For this school year, districts spent $284 million to independently purchase a mix of non-approved and approved books—3.7 percent more than the state spent on the traditional method of directly supplying approved-only textbooks.

Curiously, this nuance got muddled in the AP’s follow-up story on the Texas textbook vote, the frequently-reprinted Nov. 21 report that flatly states in the second paragraph that, “more than 5 million public school students will begin using (the books) next fall.” In the ninth paragraph of the same article, the article offhandedly contradicts itself by mentioning that the 2011 law “allows school districts to buy books both on and off the board list.”

Meanwhile, the Nov. 21 Washington Post blog about the vote never mentions the law, noting that, “school districts will be allowed to select the materials they want from the approved list.” McClatchy also didn’t mention the law in its Nov. 21 article; it simply reiterates that, “Texas has the second-largest school population after California, and so textbooks for its market often are used in other parts of the country as well.” The Atlantic, too, mimicked the familiar narrative without mention of the law. (For a better contextualized take, see the Houston Chronicle.)

Texas may still be one of the biggest purchasers of textbooks in the nation, but its outsized force beyond its borders is waning. New national science education standards were released in 2013—and they include man-made climate change and other so-called controversial subjects. The “big three” K-12 textbook publishers already signaled that they will revise their material to meet the new standards, which, in their emphasis of “doing science” over “reading science,” lessens the weight of any single mainstream textbook. Texas isn’t one of the states that adopted the new science standards, but 26 states committed to them from the beginning. Twelve states and the District of Columbia formally adopted them, and many others are moving in that direction.

Texas, then, no longer corners the market on what students nationally are learning about science.

“The influence of political and religious views on evaluators and adopters in state education departments should be minimized by these new standards,” Richard Hull, executive director of the Text and Academic Authors Association, told Common Core standards adopted in 45 states has the same impact in subjects like geography, social studies, and history. In adopting the national standards, states are still permitted to customize up to 15 percent of the material.

Texas did not adopt Common Core. It actually outlawed it in 2013. The state did adopt new learning standards in 2010, which explicitly require high school government students to “identify the individuals, whose principles of laws and government institutions informed the American founding documents, including those of Moses, William Blackstone, John Locke, and Charles de Montesquieu”—that explains the surprising Old Testament cameo in the new books.

Another reason the Texas template is no longer the national template is that publishers are increasingly using technology to tailor educational material for different states. Interactive e-textbooks, customized digital tools, educational software, and open education resources can be easily adapted to the needs of different states and even individual school districts. Digital material is already an $8 billion industry. While Diskey said hard numbers are difficult to come by, he estimates that between 30 and 40 percent of classroom “textbooks” are digital these days, and the trend is expected to continue. Pearson, one of the biggest publishers in the industry, no longer calls itself a “textbook publisher.” Instead, it is a “digital learning and services company.”

Altogether, it’s not just science and history that advanced in the last 12 years; a lot changed in education, technology, and publishing too. The Texas-textbook story is not the same as it was when the board approved materials in 2002. Reporters should not be telling it as if it is.

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.