AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — It's been lambasted on leading conservative Glenn Beck's radio show, scrutinized during committee meetings at the Texas Capitol, and has prompted new state law and a Hill Country court fight.
Now CSCOPE — online lesson plans designed to help teachers adhere to state academic curriculum requirements — is getting its own debate.
"It's the Thrilla in Manila," deadpanned Thomas Ratliff, a Mount Pleasant Republican and vice chairman of the State Board of Education.
Instead of the Ali-Frazier bout in 1975, this showdown features Ratliff defending CSCOPE against staunch critic and state Sen. Dan Patrick, a fellow Republican who chairs the upper chamber's powerful Education Committee. The debate is Saturday night in Tyler.
CSCOPE was created by state-run Educational Service Centers, which are designed to support school districts. It offers about 1,600 model lessons that school districts accessed for a per-student fee.
The system was supposed to be a cost-effective way to ensure teachers covered all state-mandated topics and was used in 877 school districts, most of them too small to afford to build their own curriculums. CSCOPE users educate about 35 percent of the state's 5 million-plus students.
Because of intellectual property concerns, many lessons weren't available to the public. That angered some conservative grassroots groups, who worried about bureaucrats secretly corrupting classrooms by promoting liberal, anti-American values.
Peggy Venable, director of the Texas chapter of the small-government group Americans for Prosperity, noted that school districts have spent millions on CSCOPE with virtually no public oversight. She plans to attend the debate where she supports Patrick's view that CSCOPE should be eliminated.
"Neither of them are shrinking violets so I think we will get a very spirited debate," Venable said of Ratliff and Patrick. "We may not get a lot of answers to our questions, but at least those questions will be raised."
Criticism intensified when parents discovered a lesson plan used in previous incarnations of CSCOPE that asked students to consider whether participants in the Boston Tea Party could be considered terrorists in some contexts. Another sample lesson asked students to design a flag for a new socialist country. Some critics suggested that lessons promoted Islamic values.
Beck branded CSCOPE un-American on his radio and television programs. After a series of Education Committee hearings, Patrick announced that the service centers had agreed to remove all online lesson plans by Aug. 31. The Texas Legislature also passed a law mandating that the State Board of Education vet CSCOPE materials.
"They've got rumor and innuendo and they take one little grain of something and turn it into the Normandy Beach," Ratliff said of CSCOPE critics.
Patrick, who is now running for lieutenant governor, declared CSCOPE dead. But Ratliff warned that school districts were losing an important tool with only a few months before students returned to school.
Ratliff said 90 percent of school districts in his vast Board of Education district use CSCOPE and that they should be allowed to do so if school board members and teachers think it's helpful. In response to Ratliff's queries at a Board of Education meeting in July, the top attorney for the Texas Education Agency suggested that CSCOPE lesson plans had simply been moved into the public domain where any school district could use them.
Patrick has no CSCOPE-using school districts in his Houston-based senatorial district because it features large, urban schools with more resources. He was unavailable for comment this week, but he said in a statement announcing the debate: "The CSCOPE curriculum was an ill-conceived program, shrouded in secrecy."
Last week, a group of activists sued Central Texas' Llano Independent School District, claiming that allowing teachers to use CSCOPE violated the new state law since the Board of Education has yet to check the system's lesson plans. That case was thrown out.
"To us, it represented someone from the outside telling us what we could and could not use," said Llano Superintendent Casey Callahan, whose district has about 1,950 students.
Callahan said that before the district began using CSCOPE in 2006, its high school would have been rated "academically unacceptable" if just two students had scored lower on standardized tests. By 2011, three district campuses were rated "recognized."
Mary Ann Whiteker, superintendent of Hudson Independent School District in Ratliff's district, is a panelist for the debate. She said her district will continue allowing its teachers to use CSCOPE this year.
"My hope is this will be a forum that will allow us to actually get the facts out in front of the public and then give the opposition the opportunity to question any of those facts," Whiteker said. "That's just not something that's taken place thus far."