School lessons become flash point in political campaign

August 02, 2013

BY KATE ALEXANDER – AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Engaged in fierce competition for conservative voters, two Republican candidates in the crowded contest for lieutenant governor are elevating a controversy over perceived liberal bias in classroom lessons from a sideshow to the center ring.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, have focused new attention on disputed claims that the lessons — known as CSCOPE — diminish American and Christian values while promoting socialism and Islam. Both are also calling for an audit of CSCOPE’s financial operations.

The issue, which was largely overshadowed by bigger education debates during the legislative session, appeals directly to key Republican primary constituencies: conservative parents and tea party activists. The other two lieutenant governor contenders, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, said they also oppose CSCOPE.

“There is a war going on right now in this country for the heart and soul of who we are and who we will be. … There is a fear that that war has now gone down into the trenches of the classroom,” said Patrick, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “Is that the aim of CSCOPE? That’s still under investigation.”

Professor Steffen Palko, who teaches curriculum theory at Texas Christian University, said he found preposterous the notion that the educators who created CSCOPE were engaged in a conspiracy to promote anti-American values. Efforts to cleanse CSCOPE smack of “thought police,” he added.

“Unfortunately, education becomes a political football,” Palko said.

Developed by state-funded Education Service Centers, CSCOPE offered school districts an array of curriculum tools, including the lesson plans, that were aligned with recently revised state academic standards.

Large and midsized districts had the capacity to create their own curriculum after the State Board of Education rewrote the standards for English, math, science and social studies in recent years.

But hundreds of mostly small school districts, including about a dozen in Central Texas, instead relied on CSCOPE as a cost-effective way to ensure that the new state standards were being taught.

The Hutto school district estimates that developing its own curriculum would run about $500,000 compared to the $40,000 annual cost of CSCOPE. Similar products from companies such as Pearson Education are also much more expensive than CSCOPE, educators say.

The quality of CSCOPE is “a little bit better than adequate,” Palko said, but it was a godsend to small school districts because they were assured the lessons aligned with the standards on which state tests are based.

Last fall, activists and parents started asking questions about CSCOPE lessons that they found alarming but were told the lessons were proprietary and could not be released to them.

“Any time that government is secret about what they’re doing, people have every reason to have concern,” said Peggy Venable, the state director of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group.

The issue blew up in conservative circles when radio host Glenn Beck railed against a CSCOPE social studies lesson that asked high school students to discuss whether the Boston Tea Party was an act of terrorism in the eyes of the British.

Patrick championed the anti-CSCOPE cause during the regular legislative session this year and authored legislation that put the lesson plans under review by the State Board of Education. In May, he declared victory when the nonprofit group that developed the curriculum system agreed to spike the 1,600 lesson plans.

“The senator did exactly what we asked to be done,” Venable said.

Two weeks ago, the CSCOPE lessons rose from the dead when the top lawyer at the Texas Education Agency explained that the lessons are now in the public domain, so school districts could continue to use them — for free.

Dewhurst seized the opportunity to take the lead on the issue after activists blamed Patrick for failing to finish the job.

“If this curriculum is going to be employed, and … it teaches values that are contrary to what we believe, I’m going to step all over their face on this. We’re going to stop this,” Dewhurst said last week during a podcast with conservative activists.

Alice Linahan, an activist from Denton County who hosted the podcast, welcomed Dewhurst’s passionate engagement.

“He was talking like a ticked-off dad. … That’s what we wanted to hear. He’s one of us,” Linahan said.

Patrick maintains that Dewhurst did little during the legislative session to address the concerns about CSCOPE.

“He didn’t have a role. He was not involved, and now he’s jumping on the bandwagon,” Patrick said of Dewhurst. “I’m glad he’s supportive. I’m glad he’s now paying attention to the issue. But this is not an issue that’s been on his radar screen.”

Patterson questioned the timing of Dewhurst’s public engagement on the issue until after Patrick entered the race this summer.

“You think it might be political? I don’t know,” Patterson said with a touch of sarcasm.

Kara Sands, a Corpus Christi parent who pushed for the review of the CSCOPE lessons, said Dewhurst played an integral role behind the scenes to get Patrick’s legislation out of the Senate.

“As Dan Patrick was jumping in front of cameras, David Dewhurst was getting it done in the Senate. … He’s not a latecomer,” Sands said.

A Dewhurst spokesman said the lieutenant governor started hearing from grass-roots groups last fall about CSCOPE and promised to advance legislation to address their concerns, which he did.

Caught up in the political hullabaloo are the school districts that are scrambling to replace the CSCOPE lessons as the new school year fast approaches.

“To create a great lesson takes time, and time is not a resource we always have in education,” said Steve Snell, an assistant superintendent in the Hutto school district, which had used CSCOPE for several years without complaint.

Two school district groups could be stepping in to help.

The Equity Center, a group of 700 property-poor school districts, is considering making the lessons available to its members but has not finalized its plans, said Ray Freeman, the group’s deputy executive director.

The Texas Association of Community Schools, which represents 600 school districts with fewer than 1,200 students, has all the lessons and will share them with its members upon request at no charge, executive director Ken McCraw said.

School board members in these heavily conservative, rural districts are frustrated that politicians are trying to score points by interfering in their local decisions, McCraw said.

“These are not bastions of liberalism that were using CSCOPE,” said McCraw, who noted that CSCOPE has also been used in private religious schools in Austin such as Hyde Park Baptist and Bannockburn Christian Academy.

“We feel like this has been a grossly unfair witch hunt,” McCraw said.

CSCOPE

  • A group of Texas regional Education Service Centers launched CSCOPE in 2006 to offer school districts a cost-effective curriculum management system that was aligned with state standards. The system includes lesson plans, assessments, instructional calendars and other curriculum tools.
  • As of last year, 70 percent of Texas school districts, serving 34 percent of public school students, subscribed to CSCOPE. Most of them are smaller districts that don’t have the resources for the their own curriculum departments.
  • Central Texas school districts using CSCOPE include Bartlett, Bastrop, Elgin, Florence, Granger, Hays, Hutto, Jarrell, Lago Vista, Lake Travis, Liberty Hill and Wimberley. It is also used by some area private schools, including Hyde Park Baptist, Bannockburn Christian Academy and the Catholic Diocese of Austin.
  • Among the 1,600 lesson plans, only a few have stirred up controversy. For example, World History students were tasked to design a flag for a socialist country as part of a unit on different economic systems. A separate World History lesson asked students to discuss whether the Boston Tea Party would have been considered terrorism in the eyes of the British.
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