Religious/political bias against good education, at Texas Education Agency

December 3, 2007

The religious bias against good education we noted here appears to have exploded into the Texas Education Agency. Unfortunately, there is an ugly political tone to the scrap.

TEA fired a top science curriculum specialist just as it starts a review of science standards, because she passed along word that a defender of science in textbooks was speaking in Austin to several people in an e-mail. The firing was urged by a political apparatchik now working inside TEA, one of several political operatives put into positions of influence in the agency in the past year or so.

(I don’t practice in Texas employment law, and Texas administrative law probably has strong employment-at-will leanings even in government agencies — but this strikes me as an illegal action on the part of TEA; we can’t fire people for doing their jobs as the law requires; we shouldn’t fire public officials for informing people about the law, nor for supporting good academics.)

Several Texas news outlets picked up the story of the firing, but to my knowledge, only the Austin American-Statesman has complained, in a Saturday editorial, “Is Misdeed a Creation of Political Doctrine?”

The education agency, of course, portrays the problem as one of insubordination and misconduct. But from all appearances, Comer was pushed out because the agency is enforcing a political doctrine of strict conservatism that allows no criticism of creationism.

This state has struggled for years with the ideological bent of the state school board, but lawmakers took away most of its power to infect education some years ago. Politicizing the Texas Education Agency, which oversees the education of children in public schools, would be a monumental mistake.

This isn’t the space to explore the debate over creationism, intelligent design and evolution. Each approach should be fair game for critical analysis, so terminating someone for just mentioning a critic of intelligent design smacks of the dogma and purges in the Soviet era.

But then, this is a new and more political time at the state’s education agency.

Robert Scott, the new education commissioner, is not an educator but a lawyer and former adviser to Gov. Rick Perry. This presents an excellent opportunity for the governor and his appointee to step in firmly to put an end to ideological witch hunts in the agency.

The person who called for Comer to be fired is Lizzette Reynolds, a former deputy legislative director for Gov. George Bush. She joined the state education agency this year as an adviser after a stint in the U.S. Department of Education.

The paper is factual and gentle: The position Ms. Reynolds filled at the U.S. Department of Education was in Texas, in a regional office, a plum often reserved for political supporters of the president’s party who need a place to draw a paycheck until the next election season.

(This where the irony bites: The Louisville Courier-Journal editorialized against creationism and the deceiving of students conducted by Ken Ham’s organization with their creationism museum; Kentucky appears to be well ahead of Texas in recognizing the dangers to education of this war against science conducted by creationists.)

Details come from the Texas Citizens for Science, and Steven Schaffersman, here. More details with extensive comments are at Pharyngula, here, here, here, and here.

The firing damages Texas’s reputation, certainly. The state is already portrayed as having an education agency run amok:

There’s a major standards review coming up, and the guy running the show is a bible-thumping clown of a dentist. Note the hint of the wider ramifications: Texas is a huge textbook market, and what goes down in Texas affects what publishers put in books that are marketed nationwide. It is time to start thinking about ending Texas’s influence. If you’re a teacher, a school board member, or an involved parent, and if you get an opportunity to evaluate textbooks for your local schools, look carefully at your biology offerings. If you’re reviewing a textbook and discover that it has been approved for use in Texas, then strike it from your list. It’s too dumb and watered down for your kids.

Nature, one of the preeminent science magazines in the world, has a blog; Texans need to reflect on the article there which lends perspective:

Attitudes to education differ round the world, but things are looking pretty odd in Texas right now. The director of the state’s science curriculum is claiming she was forced out for forwarding an email. Its content was not a risqué joke or a sleazy photo: it was a note about a forthcoming lecture by a philosopher who has been heavily involved in debates over creationism.

The Statesman reports that the Texas Education Agency had recommended firing Chris Comer for repeated misconduct and insubordination (the details of which are unclear) before she resigned. But Comer and others are saying she was forced out for seeming to endorse criticism of intelligent design. An agency memo, according to the Statesman, said: “Ms Comer’s e-mail implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speaker’s position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral.”

In other news, a new international ranking of the science ability of 15 year olds has been conducted by the OECD. The US is below average, a little under Latvia. Finland tops the chart. Those with spare time might find it interesting to compare this chart of the new OECD ranking, with this chart of belief in evolution.

If Ms. Comer’s e-mail implies endorsement of good science, her firing explicitly endorses bad science and crappy education, and thereby contradicts the policies of the State of Texas expressed in law and regulation. Firing an employee for supporting the law, which calls for good and high academic standards, should not be the policy of political appointees; it shouldn’t be legal.

It looks really bad:

. . . [A] dismissal letter stated Comer shouldn’t have sided one way or the other on evolution, “a subject on which the agency must remain neutral.”

And:

It can’t be a good thing when a state fires its head of science education for promoting science education. But that’s what happened when the Texas Education Agency put its science curriculum director Chris Comer on administrative leave in late October, leading to what she calls a forced resignation.

When the Texas Education Agency urges “neutrality” on good versus bad, you know something is very, very rotten in Austin.

Action avenues:

  • Gov. Rick Perry‘s phone number is: (800) 252-9600 (Citizen Opinion Hotline); (512) 463-2000 (main switchboard for governor)
  • TEA Commissioner Robert Scott’s e-mail is: commissioner@tea.state.tx.us, and his phone number is: (512) 463-9734

News links:


<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: