A Textbook Case: The Continuing Battle for Control Over What Students Read

While physically taking X-Acto knives to textbooks is extreme and rare, the struggle to mandate what these texts do and do not teach children is not rare in the slightest—and it can manifest in ways that are far more insidious than ripping pages out of a book.

A school board in Arizona made headlines last month for voting to cut pages out of a biology textbook in order to make sure that students do not learn about abortion. While taking x-acto knives to textbooks is extreme and rare—though it has certainly been done before—textbook censorship is not at all rare and the process for getting these books into the classroom is quite often more about politics than education. Shutterstock

A school board in Gilbert, Arizona made headlines last month for voting to physically cut pages out of a biology textbook in order to keep students from learning about abortion. Despite reassurances to the contrary from both the district’s superintendent and the state’s education department, the Gilbert Public Schools Governing Board feared that teaching the biology of abortion would violate a state law that says schools cannot promote elective abortions over childbirth and adoption.

Taking X-Acto knives to textbooks is extreme and rare, though it has certainly been done before. The battle for control over what these texts do and do not teach children, however, is not rare in the slightest—and it can manifest in ways that are far more insidious than ripping pages out of a book.

Censoring Abortion Information in Arizona

The Gilbert Public School System (GPSS), which has 38 schools and more than 39,000 students, offers an Advanced Placement Biology course for high school students. The course uses a textbook, Campbell Biology; Concepts and Connections, which is popular in schools around the country. Over the summer, GPSS was contacted by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Scottsdale, Arizona-based legal advocacy group which describes itself on its website as a “servant ministry building an alliance to keep the door open for the spread of the Gospel by transforming the legal system and advocating for religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family.” ADF warned that because the textbook explained how mifepristone—a drug used in medical abortion—works without discussing adoption, it was in violation of Arizona law.

The law in question, which was passed in 2012, orders that abortion not be privileged over carrying a fetus to term and putting it up for adoption as an option for unplanned pregnancies. However, explained the American Civil Liberties Union in a letter to superintendent Christina Kishimoto and the GPSS school board, it does not mandate that students be deprived of information about abortion or contraception. Nor, the Arizona ACLU said, is it meant to apply to individual learning resources. In other words, it does not mean that young people can’t learn about abortion at all; nor does it mean that adoption must be mentioned every time abortion is brought up. Interestingly, biology courses were not the intended target of the law: At the time of its introduction, its sponsor, state Sen. Nancy Barto, explained that she wanted to give guidance to schools when they were inviting outside speakers into health class or special sex education classes—as in, she didn’t want educators to only invite speakers that would advocate for abortion rather than adoption.

And superintendent Kishimoto was not concerned, either. For one thing, she pointed out to the East Valley Tribune, no one other than ADF, a single community member, and members of the board itself had ever complained about the book. Moreover, she added, both the district’s attorneys and the Arizona Department of Education had reviewed the textbook and its accompanying curriculum; they’d decided that the district would not be breaking the law if they continued to use them.

Chris Kotterman, deputy associate superintendent for policy development and government relations at the state education department, agreed. He told USA Today in an email that he had reviewed the book and it did not appear to be violating the statute. He added: “In general, the mere mention of a means of medically inducing abortion does not automatically signal a lack of preference for childbirth and adoption … the responsibility lies with the teacher to provide context for the student.”

Still, the school board voted to remove the pages and redact the information anyway. Alessandra Soler, the executive director of ACLU Arizona, told Rewire after the decision that she was disappointed by the extent to which the board had bowed to pressure from the ADF. Moreover, she worries that this will encourage the conservative group to go after more school districts in the state.

“Our concern now is that this is going to open the door to future censorship. I think ADF is now going to target other school districts and send similar letters, allowing politics and bias to dictate what is being discussed in the classroom,” she said.

Decades of Debate

The extreme nature of Gilbert’s proposed action, and the controversy surrounding it, made headlines all over the country. But there are other, subtler ways for disapproving parents or politicians to exact influence over the information children can access in school, sometimes before that information ever makes it into a classroom.

And these efforts to restrict education based on personal beliefs go back decades. Every expert Rewire spoke to for this article mentioned Norma and Mel Gabler, a Texas couple who began reviewing textbooks in 1961 when their son came home from school with a history book that they felt was inaccurate. Their tactic was to comb through stacks of textbooks, creating a list of errors that would be rolled out on a scroll at school board meetings throughout Texas and later around the country. Neither of the two attended college or had any background in education, but they were able to find numerous factual errors in textbooks, such as one history book that said Napoleon had won the battle of Waterloo.

Still, they are probably best known for pointing out what they considered ideological errors. According to a 1981 profile in the New York Times, which called the couple “an important voice in American education,” the Gablers’ goal was to rid schools of all material they considered “antifamily, anti-American, and anti-God.” The Gablers took on evolution and disapproved of any textbook that did not included an alternate explanation. They also objected to secular humanism. As the New York Times explained:

The trouble with most of the textbooks, the Gablers contend, is that they are written from the perspective of people who do not believe in God or an absolute value system. This perspective, they say, is a religion called secular humanism, which permeates every aspect of contemporary society and teaches youngsters to lie, cheat and steal.

In practice, the profile continued, this meant opposing a textbook that a line like “The law that allowed slavery in America was wrong, so people could break the law.” After all, the Gablers reasoned, a textbook should never sanction breaking the law.

And the couple was successful—Joan Bertin, the president of the National Coalition Against Censorship, told Rewire the Gablers became so important that national publishers would go to Texas to meet with them. In addition, the Gablers began to hold workshops across the country to help others learn their tactics. Eventually, they founded an nonprofit organization called Education Research Analysts, which still works to change material in textbooks. The organization notes on its website: “We are a conservative Christian organization that reviews public school textbooks submitted for adoption in Texas. Our reviews have national relevance because Texas state-adopts textbooks and buys so many that publishers write them to Texas standards and sell them across the country.”

Over time, the Gablers’ initial strategy of cutting information from textbooks after classroom use morphed into a preemptive influence over material. “Publishers didn’t even need the Gablers anymore,” explained Bertin, “Because they just knew what was going to meet with objections.”

Many of these standards are still in place today. Ken Miller, a professor at Brown University and co-author of Biology: The Living Science, the most popular high school biology book in the country, told Rewire that his publisher set some parameters based on what might raise conservative alarms. When he wrote the first draft of his book, for example, he considered putting information in it about contraception. But that never happened:

When we decided what was going in the book we looked we looked at state science standards in places like New York, California, and even Texas. We noticed that none of these standards said anything about contraception. I like to explain how the pill works, for example, because it helps students understand the endocrine system. I talked about weaving it in, but my editors said it wasn’t in the standards and talking about it will be a flashpoint. They said, “It’s probably a great lesson on biology but it ain’t going to be in the book.”

Textbooks and Texas

Part of why the Gablers were able to become so influential in the textbook industry—and why their legacy there endures—is because they started in Texas. The process of approving textbooks in Texas is very public and highly political. Every decade or so, publishers must present their wares to the State Board of Education (SBOE), an elected body whose members represent areas the size of three congressional districts, which means that it takes million of votes to get elected. Some of the experts Rewire spoke to suggested that many Texans see serving on the SBOE as a stepping-stone to higher political office. In the case of textbook evaluation, the SBOE allows for public comment before voting on which will go on the approved list for public schools in the state. Sometimes, these approvals are contingent on mandated changes by the SBOE.

Though a new law, passed in 2011, allows schools to buy materials that are not on the list, most do not because they would have to prove their choice meets state standards. Going with something on the approved list is certainly easiest.

Because Texas is such a large state with huge buying power, national publishers have been willing to make changes in order to ensure that their books are used in classrooms there. In Norma Gabler’s 2007 obituary, the New York Times noted, “It is difficult and costly for publishers to put out multiple editions, so a book rejected by Texas might not be printed at all.” As a consequence, other, smaller states have historically had to use books that were changed for Texas. For example, in 2012, Rewire wrote about a report by the New York Civil Liberties Union that found outdated, inaccurate, and sexist information in health textbooks used in the state. On textbook, Holt’s Lifetime Health, defined the vagina as an “organ that receives sperm during reproduction.” An expert we spoke to at the time noted that this edition of Lifetime Health was identical to the one that had been passed—after changes had been made—in Texas. 

Dan Quinn, communication director at the Texas Freedom Network (TFN), which describes itself as “the state’s watchdog, monitoring far-right issues, organizations, money and leaders,” tells Rewire that he has seen many changes to textbooks made to appeal to the Gablers and those conservative advocates who followed in their footsteps.

One of the most notable changes was made in 2002, when the publisher of a world geography textbook agreed after pressure from the SBOE to revise references to the formation of fossil fuels and glaciers. The authors had said these formed “millions of years ago” but this was changed to read “in the distant past” and “over time” so that it didn’t directly contradict the Bible’s account of when the world began.

Even after information makes it to the page, this system makes it easy for politicians to nix it from later editions before it gets into future classrooms. Quinn recounts how conservatives on the SBOE were able to get the oldest and most widely used civics book—Frank Abbott Magruder’s American Government, first published in 1917—to change its description of the U.S. Constitution from a “living document” to an “enduring document.” It’s just one word, but it transforms the meaning to suggest that the Constitution is static and unchanging, putting the text more in line with conservative legal thinking.

Miller’s book has also been subject to Gabler-esque reviews and pressure to change language for its Texas editions. Biology: The Living Science was one of the textbooks up for approval by the Texas SBOE in 2013. At issue was the explanation of evolution. SBOE members who believe in creationism felt that evolution should be presented as a theory next to other “theories,” such as intelligent design, rather than as proven science.

When the SBOE revised its standards for teaching science a few years prior, it had added what Quinn described as “traps” for publishers. For example, the standards now suggest that students learn about gaps in the fossil record that can’t be explained by evolution. The standards also want students to question how something as complicated as a human cell could have been created through an unguided natural process—another format that gives equal weight to creationism and evolution. As they acknowledged these theories, Miller took the opportunity to expand the explanation of evolution more thoroughly. As Miller told Rewire:

Our reaction to that, when we adapted the book for Texas, was to include more of an explanation over and above the national edition so we could address these issues. So the coverage of evolution is actually a little more complete. But it meets both the letter and the spirit of the standards.

When Miller and his publisher, Pearson, submitted the book for review, a creationist on the review committee listed two dozen “errors” in the book; the SBOE leaned on Pearson to make changes. Both Miller and another professor reviewed all of the supposed errors and responded with journal articles and other sources backing up what the original draft had said. As a result, the publisher refused to change anything. Though the SBOE voted in November 2013 to approve all of the science textbooks, inclusion of Miller’s book was contingent on a final review of these purported inaccuracies. Three experts, chosen by board members, reviewed the book and voted unanimously to approve it. Quinn says the entire process of approving science books was a win for science and rational thinking.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the vote on social studies textbooks that also took place in Texas last month. This time, books to be used in geography, U.S. history, U.S. government, and other classes beginning in fall 2015 were up for evaluation. The SBOE’s historical influence could be seen immediately in the books presented for approval—many included misleading information about climate change, religion, slavery, affirmative action, and Native Americans that seemed designed to please conservative members of the board.  

For example, one of the books included a side-by-side discussion of climate change. On one side was an explanation by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a scientific body under the auspices of the United Nations. On the other side—which denies climate change is happening and/or that it is a result of human behavior—was an explanation by the Heartland Institute, a think tank with ties to the Koch brothers that aims to “to discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems.”

After asking experts to review the proposed books, TFN found numerous other actual errors and biases. For instance, it reported, among many other issues, that a number of the government and world history textbooks exaggerated Judeo-Christian influence on our nation’s founding; included biased statements and negative portrayals of Islam and Muslims; downplayed the role that conquest had in the spread of Christianity; and spread misleading information about the doctrine of separation of church and state.

This time under public pressure from groups like TFN and the National Center for Science Education, which advocates for accurate, unbiased, scientific information in classrooms, publishers agreed to make changes and focus more on the legitimate science of climate change. The side-by-side comparison and other information that gave legitimacy to climate change deniers were cut. The SBOE also opted to direct some changes to social studies texts.

Even so, Quinn says that wasn’t not nearly enough. The books, he said, still mention Moses’ influence on our democracy and other misleading pieces of information:

It came down to the publishers making a calculated decision about what they could get past the conservatives on the board. It’s a prime example of how in Texas, politics, rather than scholarship, is the driving force for what kids learn in the classroom, and our politics affect kids nationwide.

Such controversies are likely to continue in the future. For instance, Texas is set to choose which Health Education books—including information on sexual education—make it onto the approval lists in 2018.

Gilbert May Not Cut Pages after All

Meanwhile, back in Arizona, the effort to cut pages out of the textbook may be stalled. Superintendent Christina Kishimoto was asked by the board to come up with a plan for redacting the textbooks—a decision that seems as simple as deciding between Sharpies or X-Acto knives—but both she and some members of the board have put off the planning until at least the summer. And, she has reiterated her objection to making any changes.

There is the possibility that it won’t happen at all because the November elections changed the make-up of the board. The new board takes control in January and could decide to revisit the issue.

Of course, board member Julie Smith, who voted for censoring the textbook doesn’t understand why tearing pages out of books is so hard. She told the East Valley Tribune: “This is not rocket science, people. It’s very clear-cut.” Smith was one of the drivers behind the original decision; she told the New York Times that when she heard the book mentioned abortion she almost drove off the road because she felt it violated her religious rights. “I’m Catholic; we do not contracept,” Ms. Smith said. “It is a grave sin.”

Ken Miller, for his part, has a different take on the Gilbert controversy: “I can’t think of any better way to make sure that students are going to read a page in a book than trying to ban it or tear it out,” he sad.

Whether they end up cutting out pages or not, the board in Gilbert will likely be remembered for its willingness to take drastic measures to prevent young people from getting a complete, unbiased education. Unfortunately, attempts to do so take many different forms, some of which garner much less publicity. Hopefully, the ridiculousness of redacting an honors biology book—which caught the attention of mainstream media such as the Rachel Maddow Show—will also bring attention to the other ways states, school boards, and others who choose to carry on traditions like the Gablers’ control what young people read at school.