AUSTIN, Texas -- The Texas Board of Education approved tighter rules on Friday dictating who can serve on volunteer panels that scrutinize textbooks, a move that could soften longstanding and often heated ideological fights over what students learn in public schools.
Tension over the issue has been building for years in the country's second most populous state, where the textbook market is so large that changes can affect the industry nationwide. Critics complain that a few activists with religious or ideological objections have too much power to shape what the state's more than 5 million public school students learn.
The 15-member education board has the final say on textbook content, but the boards influence their decisions. Among the changes approved Friday is a mandate that teachers or professors be given priority for serving on the textbook panels for subjects in their areas of expertise.
Election defeats have weakened the board's bloc of social conservatives, who made headlines in recent years when pushing for deemphasizing evolution in science books and requiring students to evaluate whether the United Nations undermined U.S. sovereignty. The citizen review panels also have been dominated in recent years by social and religious conservatives who object to evolution and climate change entries in science textbooks.
But the catalyst for revamping those panels came last summer, when two ardent evolution skeptics - a nutritionist and a chemical engineer - caused a tumultuous fight by challenging a proposed biology textbook that didn't include information on creationism.
"We don't need lay people making these highly specific and technical decisions on these books," Thomas Ratliff, a Republican board member pushing for the new mandate, said during the board's meeting in November.
Ratliff said Friday that another proposed rule would allow the board, with a majority vote, to have panels of outside experts scrutinize any objections raised by the citizen panels as a further check on their power.
Though modest, the changes approved Friday could have a major impact in Texas, where Republican Gov. Rick Perry bragged during his 2011 presidential campaign that students were taught both evolution and creationism. The previous year, the education board approved social studies curriculum in which children learned that the words "separation of church and state" were not in the Constitution and were asked to evaluate whether the United Nations undermines U.S. sovereignty.
All the proposed changes deal only with textbook reviews and won't stop larger clashes by education board members about textbooks. They also won't affect panels that vet proposed curriculums.
One proposal requires all portions of proposed books to be reviewed by at least two panel members, so that a single volunteer couldn't raise objections. Other rules would let panelists submit majority and minority reports about proposed materials to the board, and restrict board members' contact with reviewers so as not to unfairly influence them.
A more ambitious plan that would have allowed the education board to remove panelists for inappropriate behavior failed Wednesday night on a 9-6 vote.
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