If one were not from here, one might expect that an entity called the Texas State Board of Education would be a relatively quiet body, spending its time debating things like just how poorly public school teachers should be paid and what shade of yellow to paint the school buses. One, as is usually the case in Texas, would be wrong.
The education board has been a font of controversy for decades in this state, particularly in the last couple of years, as social conservatives increased their power on the board and made it into an arena for fighting over things like teaching evolution versus creationism.
But the SBOE circus officially graduated to three rings this week. According to The Dallas Morning News and other sources, two members of a panel advising the education board on curriculum standards have recommended that civil rights leaders César Chávez and Thurgood Marshall be downgraded in status in Texas social studies classes. Yes, that would be the same two people for whom schools are named across this country.
According to the News, evangelical minister Peter Marshall said it was “ludicrous” to list internationally recognized labor leader Chávez next to Ben Franklin. His conservative colleague David Barton of Aledo wrote that Chavez “lacks the stature” of other major figures in U.S. history. The News also reported that Peter Marshall said Thurgood Marshall, America’s first black Supreme Court justice and the lawyer who argued the case that ended racial segregation of this country’s schools “is not a strong enough example” to be presented to schoolchildren as an important historical figure. (They also made other potentially inflammatory recommendations.)
We asked two prominent Fort Worth civic leaders about the statements. The steam coming out of their ears after they read the original story could have powered a freight train.
“I can’t believe how anyone in good conscience could argue that,” said Fort Worth City Council member Sal Espino. “Thurgood Marshall was responsible for one of the most important decisions in American jurisprudence. … Cesar Chavez fought for equality and fair treatment – he’s an inspiration to countless Hispanic schoolchildren, to children around the world.” The two men, he said, “epitomize the values of justice, liberty and freedom that are embedded in our U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence.
“When I saw that article it clicked a very strong button in me,” he said. “My goodness, it just upset me.”
Maryellen Hicks, a retired state district and appellate court judge in Fort Worth, said the story left her “totally amazed at the ignorance of certain people.
“Having met both those great Americans in my lifetime, if anybody belongs in history books it is certainly those two magnificent men,” she said. “I don’t know what to say. … For me it says we haven’t come as far as we think we have. We may have elected an African-American as president, but so what – we have a long way to go.”
For “allegedly learned people to downplay the contributions of these two great men is appalling,” she said. “It is a sign of dangerous times in this country.
“I really think there ought to be some sort of protest” of the statements, she said.