Texas Citizens for Science
P. O. Box 13022
Odessa, TX 79768-3022
February 23, 2004
Ms. Geraldine Miller, Chairman
State Board of Education
Texas Education Agency
1701 North Congress Avenue
Austin, TX 78701-1494
Dear Chairman Miller:
I wish to bring to your attention a most serious issue. For the past two months, Board member Dr. Don McLeroy and Chief Deputy Commissioner Robert Scott have been attempting to accomplish the goals of the Discovery Institute to censor the biology textbooks under the guise of "factual error correction" after the final vote by the State Board to adopt all the books. I was aware that textbook errors identified by the university contractor, the biology textbook review panel, and specialists on the TEA staff would be corrected after adoption, since the error reports often arrive or are finalized during the last week before the adoption vote, and the errors must therefore be corrected subsequent to official adoption. This would be a perfectly normal procedure, but in a series of email memos to biology textbook publishers, Dr. McLeroy and Mr. Scott included the Discovery Institute and the "Mel Gablers" in their list of errors to address and correct. These alleged "errors" of evolution are the same bogus "errors" or "weaknesses" submitted in written testimony during the summer by creationist organizations such as the Discovery Institute and Texans for Better Science Education. As dozens of legitimate scientists testified in the hearings you attended, these "errors" are false misrepresentations of scientific knowledge and have no value whatsoever. The publishers refused to make the bogus "error" changes and the State Board adopted the books by an 11-4 vote. Illegitimately forcing the publishers to deal with the same errors a second time, with the continued threat that their books would be rejected or put on the nonconforming list, amounts to unfair harassment, intimidation, and extortion.
I first learned of the behind-the-scenes effort by McLeroy to intimidate the publishers a second time four weeks ago. I began an investigation immediately and tried to obtain documents. I asked Gene Rios to send me copies of all TEA correspondence and publishers' replies to the messages and Discovery Institute "error" lists. He sent me the publishers' replies but not the original email messages. Fortunately, I was able to get those from other sources, and I have published them on the TCS website at www.txscience.org. I have learned the following: Mr. Scott told Dr. Robert Leos, who told Mr. Eugene Rios, to correspond with biology publishers on Dec. 12 to inform them that they must correct all textbook errors, including those of the creationist organization "Mel Gablers" and "errors identified through public testimony and written comments." Publishers, of course, would only have to correct such errors if they acknowledged that they were errors. As is well known, the Discovery Institute "errors" were dismissed by many scientists whose testimony conclusively showed that the DI's submission was pseudoscientific nonsense. However, Dr. McLeroy was upset that the Dec. 12 memo didn't specifically mention the Discovery Institute, so he asked the TEA textbook staff to again correspond with the publishers in a Dec. 19 memo and remind them explicitly that, in the "event you overlooked this material," that they must review and comment on the "alleged factual issues raised by the Discovery Institute."
But that still was not enough. Unwillingly to let the TEA textbook staff do their jobs, Dr. McLeroy thought it necessary to correspond with the biology textbook publishers themselves and act like a one-man Texas Education Agency. He reminded publishers on Jan. 8 that "there is a process by which errors that remain in the books will be fixed before they get into the hands of children," and that their "cooperation in it is required." This sort of ex parte communication is probably not legal, and is certainly very irregular and unwise. The only way to explain this is to conclude that Dr. McLeroy is bullying the publishers, an exercise of over-reaching that all pseudoscientists engage in and serves as one of its identifiers. After all the implied threats and coercion that textbook publishers have to endure under the normal Texas textbook adoption process to change their books' content to satisfy the political, religious, and social desires of the State Board as a single entity, now they are having to endure individual Board members calling them up with the same implied threats and informing them their "cooperation" is "required" in yet another sleazy attempt to satisfy the Discovery Institute's wishes. No wonder our country's textbook publishers feel they are harassed by the Texas process. Believe me, they complain privately about this, and their complaints are fully justified.
There exists even further evidence that these actions were part of a planned strategy to censor the evolution content of the biology books despite their overwhelming adoption by the SBOE without changes asked for by the Discovery Institute and other creationist organizations: while the public--including scientists and science educators, and probably most members of the State Board of Education--were kept ignorant of the details of the behind-the-scene maneuverings of Dr. McLeroy to intimidate publishers, the details were known to members of other creationist organizations. Mr. Frank Mayo, an officer of Texans for Better Science Education, was obviously aware of the push to damage the biology books under the guise of "error correction," since he referred to this effort in his message to the Katy ISD Board as they considered which biology textbook to adopt.
I won't discuss the "factual errors" identified by the Discovery Institute in detail here. Let me just state in a general way that their claimed "errors" are deliberately false misrepresentations of various illustrations of the evolutionary process as understood by modern science, are in no way "false," and this has already been explained to you and other members by numerous scientists, including myself, during testimony before the Board. Claims by the Discovery Institute that the biology textbooks misrepresent homology using circular reasoning, the Miller-Urey experiment, the similarity of vertebrate embryos, the peppered moth experiment, the Cambrian explosion, and other evolutionary topics are pseudoscientific distortions, promoted only to damage the textbooks' presentation of evolution and thus promote their anti-evolution agenda.
I agree that legitimate factual errors in textbooks should be corrected by the Texas adoption process, including even fixing them after the books have officially been adopted by the Board but before they are actually printed. However, it would be honest and forthright to make only legitimate corrections identified by qualified panels and individuals, not bogus ones listed by aberrant pseudoscientific organizations. I suggest that State Board members refrain from abusing this process by stealthily using it to promote their personal anti-scientific belief systems. The post-hearing process is hidden from the public, does not have the oversight of the entire Board, and lacks public accountability. In short, it's the perfect part of the process to exploit by an unscrupulous individual with an extreme agenda to push. Engaging in this, as Dr. McLeroy did, betrays the public trust, smears the reputation of the entire State Board, and continues to make the Texas public education system look like it is still mired in the Dark Ages. I just can't explain why Mr. Scott participated in this process; certainly he must have had an inkling of conscience when he did Dr. McLeroy's bidding. Why didn't he just say "no"; the majority of the Board would have backed him. Perhaps he also wants to push the extreme right-wing political, religious, and social agenda as Dr. McLeroy, but I just don't know.
I also want to acknowledge that the TEA textbook division staff, especially Dr. Leos and Mr. Rios, are perfectly innocent participants in this scandal, since they were ordered to do the dirty work of Dr. McLeroy and other extremists on the Board by Mr. Scott. I suggest that you and the other members of the State Board do not terminate the textbook division and privatize it, since this will just make the textbook adoption process less accountable to public oversight and administration, and probably put it into the hands of political extremists who care nothing about public accountability, but only about making money on state contracts. I am fully aware that the Republicans now in control of state government want to decimate the Texas public school system, gut funding of public schools, subsidize religious schools and home schools, lower standards of historical and scientific accuracy, and turn Texas into Iran. Privatizing school district textbook processing, while keeping control of controversial content, are just small steps in the overall plan, but I urge you not to take them.
As you know, Texas derives its power to censor textbooks from its highly-centralized authoritarian adoption process and enormous purchasing power, allowing it to force publishers to make changes of factual errors and include content to match the state's science curriculum requirements. Since textbooks often do contain factual errors, this process would not be censorship or problematical for scientists if that's all that transpired. But the Board is able to vote to define when specific textbook content is actually a "factual error," even if no expert panel of teachers or scientists reach the same conclusion--or more likely, reach the opposite conclusion. Although one might think it is fantastic or incredible that elected officials have the power to decide whether reliable and factual scientific knowledge is or is not a fact, this is currently the case in Texas.
Such power can and has been used quite recently by the State Board of Education. It as a form of semi-legal to illegal extortion, allowing the Board to harass and intimidate publishers and force them to change or respond to alleged "factual errors" that are not actually false, with the threat that their textbooks will not be adopted on the conforming list, thus losing tens to hundreds of millions of dollars in textbook sales. In practice, the Board plays a duplicitous game of chicken with science textbook publishers, repeatedly asking them to make corrections of bogus, alleged "factual errors," while each time publishers have to guess how acceptable their responses will be to members who possess faith-based beliefs at odds with modern science, whether these individuals constitute a majority of SBOE members, whether they will actually vote to reject a book whose publisher wishes to preserve its scientific accuracy, and what support they can expect from the scientific community--virtually all of whom are extraordinarily busy with their scientific research and teaching duties--to defend their textbooks and protect scientific integrity. And then, of course, publishers can certainly imagine what the consequences will be if they choose wrongly and their books are rejected or placed on the non-conforming list. This reprehensible game of chicken constitutes needless and probably illegal harassment and bullying of the publishers. None of them like it, but they cannot publicly protest in the face of the State Board's enormous financial hold over them. Only independent organizations and individuals who are knowledgeable of the history of abuse, such as Texas Citizens for Science and Diane Ravitch (author of The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn) can complain.
I am happy to report that, as far as I have been able to determine by studying the available publishers' responses, biology textbook publishers are continuing to defend the accuracy of their books' science content in the face of this latest intimidation and extortion attempt by Dr. McLeroy and Mr. Scott, and all have refused to make substantive changes to the bogus so-called "errors" identified by the Discovery Institute. The publishers are counting on the organized opposition of scientists and science supporters to help them defend the integrity of science and science textbooks against the powerful forces of dogmatism, unreason, and pseudoscience in Texas. The really sad thing about this situation, however, which I think everyone now understands, is that without the organized and timely participation and defense by scientists and science educators, the biology textbooks would almost surely have been compromised.
The frequent consequence of the Texas textbook adoption process has been the deliberate intimidation and extortion of textbook publishers resulting in censorship of reliable and factual educational content--the diminishing, distortion, and deletion of sound scientific, social, historical, health, environmental, and economic information. Many studies reveal that Texas students are less able to perform at the college level than students from other states, and Texas student exam scores continue to rank near the bottom of all states. This was true in the 1980s, when I first pointed it out to the SBOE and explained the reason, and it is still true today under the current Board. The reason is that the education of many Texas students is deliberately censored and thwarted by explicit and implicit social policies and customs that prevent students from learning the relevant and reliable information they need to develop critical thinking skills and succeed in the modern world as careful and independent thinkers. These policies and customs are supported and maintained by many social institutions, not only the school system, but only the public school system can mitigate this cycle of ignorance and complacency for most students, so that is where we must begin to solve the problem.
Despite the current result--that publishers refused to censor the biology textbooks after yet another round of official intimidation by TEA administrators and a SBOE member--the actions of Don McLeroy and Robert Scott were irregular and unethical (what one might term "semi-legal") and probably illegal, but this latter description depends on (1) the legality of a single SBOE member directly corresponding with publishers without the knowledge or permission of other SBOE members, (2) the legality of publishers being forced to respond to non-public, essentially secret post-facto "error correction" attempts after their textbooks have already been reviewed, vetted, and adopted in hearings by the SBOE's very open, lengthy, thorough, democratic, and fully accountable public process, and (3) the legality of powerful individuals pushing self-defined "factual errors" under the authority of the SBOE and TEA in the face of extensive and unanimous previous scientific testimony that such "errors" are not in fact scientific errors, but deliberate pseudoscientific misrepresentations. I am therefore not willing to describe the actions of Dr. McLeroy and Mr. Scott as absolutely illegal until these factors are tested in court, and this may actually occur in the near future, since Dr. McLeroy and other TEA officials have already been sued over an identical incident involving an environmental science textbook. No doubt he and the others would be sued by biology textbook publishers if any of their books were rejected in a similar manner, but this hasn't happened yet, nor do I think it will.
For now, I am willing to describe the actions of these two public officials as irregular, unethical, unscientific, unwise, and a betrayal of the trust and openness required of elected and appointed public officials, especially in processes concerning public education. Their actions make a mockery of Governor Rick Perry's Master Science Teacher Initiative, passed by the Texas Legislature in 2003 to improve science instruction in Texas public schools, because they forcefully declare that the SBOE is not really interested in improving science education, but rather in diminishing and distorting it. Because they have shown such a blatant disregard for due process and public accountability, I request that Dr. Don McLeroy and Mr. Robert Scott resign from their positions on the SBOE and TEA. If Dr. McLeroy refuses to resign, I request that he be censured by the full State Board for abuse of the process and damaging the Board's national reputation for fair and accurate treatment of science in public education.
Finally, because science teachers throughout Texas are disillusioned and apprehensive about the lack of support they receive from principals, superintendents, school boards, and the Texas State Board of Education regarding the issue of teaching evolution in Texas public school classrooms, I also request that the State Board of Education adopt a statement or resolution stating their approval of teaching science accurately and fully, including the topic of evolution. I further request that you please ask the new TEA Commissioner, Dr. Shirley Neeley, if she will make a similar statement or join the Board in theirs. Science will never be taught truthfully and completely in Texas until public education leaders in our state forcefully express their desire to have it taught that way.
Very truly yours,
Steven D. Schafersman, Ph.D.
President, Texas Citizens for Science