Texas Restores Keller Lesson; Other Curriculum Changes Loom

Bowing to public criticism, the Texas Board of Education voted Tuesday to restore Helen Keller to the state’s history curriculum — but board members were still mulling scrapping lessons on Hillary Clinton while preserving hot-button instruction about how Moses influenced the nation’s Founding Fathers and how the states’ rights issue helped cause the Civil War. 

The move came after its 10 Republicans and five Democrats heard hours of often impassioned testimony from students, teachers, activists and academic experts who in some cases defended — but more often decried — proposed edits meant to streamline academic standards for history.  

A final vote is scheduled Friday and the board can still make changes before then. 

Texas has about 5.4 million public school students, more than any other state but California. Teaching board-approved lessons isn’t always mandatory, but its sanctioned curriculum can affect what’s published in textbooks. Texas is a large enough market that its curriculum sometimes influences what goes into materials used elsewhere around the country — though that’s been less true in recent years as technology allows for tailoring what’s taught to different states and even individual school districts. 

For years, culture war clashes over how to teach history, as well as instruction on topics like evolution and climate change in science courses, have kept Texas’ Board of Education in the national spotlight. In September, it voted to preliminarily cut lessons on Clinton, the former secretary of state and unsuccessful 2016 presidential candidate, as well as Keller, an iconic activist who was deaf and blind. 

One of Tuesday’s most emotional moments came when a hearing and visually impaired student named Gabrielle Caldwell, 17, spoke about how Keller was the only connection many people have to the deaf and blind community. 

“I am hoping you keep Helen Keller being taught in our schools,” Caldwell said. “She’s a hero.”  

Hours later, the board voted to restore Keller to third-grade curriculums. There was little discussion and the lone objection came from David Bradley, a Beaumont Republican, who noted that Keller later in life voiced public support for eugenics.  

Keller aside, historians and college professors have for years criticized the board for putting politics over academics. But Board of Education Chairwoman Donna Bahorich, a Houston Republican, argued in an op-ed that the September moves weren’t partisan, noting that its members also voted to remove “conservative icon” Barry Goldwater, who ran an unsuccessful 1964 presidential campaign. 

Lessons that ask students to explore Moses’ influence on political thinkers at the time of the founding of the United States have been in Texas curriculums since 2010. A panel of experts had proposed cutting those, but the board voted in September to preserve them. It also retained language that students learn how the “Arab rejection of the State of Israel has led to ongoing conflict” in the Middle East. 

The board also was mulling approval of language that sectionalism and states’ rights were “contributing factors” to the Civil War, while sanctioning language that slavery was a “central cause” of the conflict. 

Nearly 200 historians and scholars have signed a petition circulated by the Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog group and frequent board critic, which says the standards “resurrect the ’Lost Cause’ myth, a long-discredited version of history first promoted in the late-19th and early 20th centuries to glorify the Confederate past and reinforce white supremacist policies.” 

After hearing pleas from testifiers Tuesday, the board also voted to restore a previously trimmed second-grade lesson about the Women Airforce Service Pilots, civilians who flew during World War II and were the first U.S. women to pilot military aircraft.