An existing struggle over the nature of culture and politics has been reenergized in recent years, in part due to the election of Donald Trump. At least if recent curricular changes for Texas K-12 social studies programs are any indication, that shift has also come to the rarefied world of state education politics.
For the 2019-2020 academic year, Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) officials voted in favor of a curriculum that gave pride of place to traditional Texan notions, including describing defenders of the Alamo as "heroes" and highlighting America's "Judeo-Christian" background such as by voting to include the biblical Moses as a prominent lawgiver who influenced America's legal tradition.
These efforts were opposed vigorously by Texas chapters of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), whose personnel attended the November amendments session. CAIR Austin's executive director Maria Sheikh, together with the progressive Texas Coalition for Human Rights, also sent out an action alert a few weeks before the session to make activists aware of the open session when proposed revisions to the social studies curriculum in the 2019-2020 academic year would be reviewed.
CAIR describes itself as a Muslim civil rights organization, but its critics have long accused it of promoting Islamist ideology, and U.S. federal prosecutors have shown the group's close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, a designated terrorist organization. CAIR itself has been designated as a terror group by the United Arab Emirates.
In particular, CAIR strenuously objected to changes in Texas social studies curriculum which described the Israel-Palestine conflict as being at least partially caused by "the rejection of the existence of the state of Israel by the Arab league and a majority of Arab nations" and another change which asked students to "summarize the developments and impact of radical Islamic fundamentalism on events in the last half of the twentieth century, including terrorism and the growth of terrorist groups."
CAIR rhetorically battled with Texas Values, a conservative Christian advocacy organization that testified in defense of Judeo-Christian heritage and pushed for a traditionalist social studies curriculum in the Texas public school system.
At the hearing in November 2018, the use of the term "Judeo-Christian" in reference to Western and United States traditions was an area of contention. Was the United States founded on Judeo-Christian principles or was it founded on secularism? Was the development of democratic-republican political systems because of Judeo-Christian values or was it despite those values that democratic-republican governments were created? While CAIR repeatedly made the claim that the United States founding was largely secular, Texas Values repeatedly opposed such a view.
Texas has long been a battleground of choice between conservative groups and an alliance of Islamist and progressive organizations. In 2013, conservatives gained support when Roy White founded Truth in Textbooks (TNT) to counter what he saw as indoctrination in the Texas school system. According to White,
"The idea has always been to diminish the significance of America, diminish its historical figures and its exceptionalism. They've won this by making the learning process about emotions rather than facts."
White's organization has now trained over 200 people to review state textbooks:
"We have to get their eyes adjusted to the dark," says White, referring to preparing reviewers to recognize the biases that creep into textbooks.
In the first year alone, White says TNT found over 1500 errors of fact in the history and social studies textbooks they reviewed, 60% of which were eventually corrected.
Now an organization called Florida Citizens Alliance has asked TNT to review textbooks in Florida for accuracy after the organization filed a lawsuit against a local Florida school system for inaccuracies in one of its course textbooks. Following that lawsuit, the state of Florida passed a law, which White describes as "having teeth," that allowed local residents to challenge school curriculum.
If the 2019-2020 Texas social studies curriculum changes are any indication, Texas will remain ground zero for efforts by both sides to sway social studies curriculum. Judging from the changes for next year, at least groups like Truth in Textbooks and Texas Values have been successful in standing up to CAIR and its ilk in defense of Texas' Judeo-Christian Western heritage.
For a full list of the changes to the Texas social studies curriculum voted in beginning 2019-2020, see here.
Correction: A previous version of this story indicated that Florida Citizens Alliance had won its lawsuit against a local Florida school system. That lawsuit is ongoing.