A hail of controversy fell upon a middle school in Portland, Maine, when its school committee voted 7-2 on Wednesday to provide prescription birth control to middle schoolers as young as eleven. The first middle school in Maine to make full range of contraceptive options available, the King Middle School may be among the first middle schools in the United States providing a broad range of contraceptive options, said the National Assembly of School-Based Health Centers.
The school's nurse, Amanda Rowe, had proposed the policy change after five students out of a student body of 134 told her that they were sexually active. Parents need to sign consent forms to enable their children to use the school health center, and will be notified of the full range of health services offered and the confidentiality requirements to which the clinic adheres. But the details of the students' treatment and care will be kept confidential.
Of the three middle schools in Portland, King is the only one with a school health clinic, primarily because it has a high percentage of students who are eligible for a free or reduced-price school lunch, an indication of family poverty.
The health center at King Middle School has offered condoms since its inception in 2000, and high schoolers have had access to birth control pills and other contraceptive methods since 2003. Patches, injections, and Plan B will all now be offered at King Middle, but diaphragms and IUDs are not usually prescribed, said health officials. Prepubescent children couldn't obtain prescriptions, and school health workers would provide follow-up care for students who do obtain birth control prescriptions.
Like This Story?
Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.
Critics of the school committee decision have suggested that when students as young as eleven present to their school nurse as sexually active, nurses should contact the Department of Social Services rather than prescribe birth control. Others have alleged that a school nurse's right to distribute birth control undermines "responsible" families.
But some policy supporters understand that the realities of children's lives today have become much more complicated and communications hurdles within families more intractable. The Portland Press Herald reported that King Middle's principal, Michael McCarthy, "said the change is meant to help a few King students who, for whatever reason, have no other access to reproductive health care."
In late spring, the Roberts Court will hear the umpteenth challenge by conservatives to the Affordable Care Act, and the second specifically challenging the birth control benefit of the ACA.
These cases are confusing. Conservatives have filed hundreds of challenges; the cases involve tax and employee benefits law, which few lawyers even understand; and there has been significant political bluster along the lines of “the Obama administration forcing birth control on nuns.”
But they are important, because the Supreme Court will once again be balancing women’s rights to a full range of health-care benefits under the law against the “religious rights” of corporations and nonprofit organizations to deny those benefits. A win for conservatives will drastically reduce contraceptive coverage otherwise available under the ACA.
What are the cases the Supreme Court is going to decide?
Like This Story?
Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.
There are seven cases before the Court. Three of them have been consolidated for one brief: (1) Zubik v. Burwell; (2) Priests for Life v. Department of Health and Human Services; and (3) Roman Catholic Archbishop of D.C. v. Burwell.
The remaining four cases were consolidated for a second brief: (1) East Texas Baptist University v. Burwell; (2) Southern Nazarene University v. Burwell; (3) Geneva College v. Burwell; and (4) Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell.
Petitioners filed their opening briefs with the Court earlier this month. The government will file its response on February 10.
Who are the challengers?
The challengers, or “petitioners,” are a group of religiously affiliated nonprofit organizations, mostly Catholic and evangelical Christian nonprofit schools like the Catholic University and Thomas Aquinas College.
What does that mean?
It means what it sounds like, for the most part. They are nonprofit organizations that are somehow affiliated with a particular religion. In the birth control benefit cases, they happen to all be evangelical Christian or Catholic. That’s probably not a coincidence, sincethe deluge of religious freedom cases with respect to reproductive and LGBTQ rights have been orchestrated by members of those denominations.
These organizations offer a variety of health insurance plans to their students and employees. Some offer group health insurance plans that they purchased through a commercial insurance carrier, like Aetna or Blue Cross. Others are self-insured, which means they provide health care to their students and employees, and pay for it out of their own coffers, but contract with third-party administrators for actual coverage. While the terms and names are different, the coverage is virtually identical.
Some of the organizations offer what are known as “church plans”—insurance plans that are for the benefit of employees of churches or other religious organizations. Church plans are covered under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), which bars any government regulation of an employee benefit plan run by a church. This means that organizations with church plans don’t have to offer contraceptive coverage.
In other words, workers at organizations that offer health insurance through a church plan do not have a right to contraceptive access through their employer-provided plan. By contrast, employees who fall under the self-insured umbrella still have a right to contraceptive access through their employer-provided health-care plans; they just must access it through a third-party administrator.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires most private health insurance plans to provide coverage for a wide range of preventive services. This includes prescription contraceptives approved by the FDA.
Including contraception as a preventive service sent the religious right into a frenzy. They complained that providing contraceptive coverage is a violation of their religious freedom under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
The Obama administration set about trying to appease the birth control naysayers by offering a compromise, so it could accomplish its goal of providing contraception to women without co-pay but also remain respectful of the religious objectors’ beliefs.
The compromise was simple: Churches and other houses of worship could exclude contraceptive coverage from their health insurance plans.
Other organizations—religiously affiliated nonprofit organizations like the ones whose cases are pending before the Supreme Court—would be able to opt out of the birth control benefit by filling out Form 700 and passing it along their insurer (or third-party administrator, if they were self-insured). Form 700 would let their insurer know that they oppose contraception on religious grounds and refuse to provide coverage for it. The insurer (or third-party administrator) would then step in and provide contraceptive coverage.
That process for accommodating objections to the birth control benefit is being challenged by more than a dozen religious nonprofits, which argue that the form and notification requirements violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
In providing that coverage, insurance companies would notify all the nonprofit’s students and/or employees, as well as pay for that coverage out of the insurance company’s own pockets.
This seemed like a reasonable workaround. It would permit religious objectors to disentangle themselves from involvement in the process by which their employees and students could obtain contraceptive coverage if they wanted it.
Still, the religious nonprofits cried foul. Two in particular—Little Sisters of the Poor and Wheaton College—claimed that the task of filling out the form in and of itself was a violation of their religious freedom, and they filed lawsuits by the dozens.
And we, as a nation, rolled our eyes.
But the Supreme Court came up with another solution—a workaround to the workaround, so to speak. Religious nonprofits could send a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services notifying HHS that they objected to providing contraceptive coverage and let HHS sort it out.
According to petitioners, though, this workaround to the workaround is just as much a substantial burden on their religious freedom as the original one.
So what are we left with?
A group of religious nonprofits who don’t want simply to be disentangled from the provision of contraceptive coverage to their students and employees. They want to boycott the birth control benefit entirely, preventing their students and employees from obtaining that coverage at all.
Didn’t the U.S. Supreme Court already decide a big birth control benefit case? Wasn’t that Hobby Lobby?
Yes. The Court in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby ruled that closely held for-profit corporations could not be forced to comply with the birth control benefit by providing their employees health insurance plans that offer coverage for contraceptives.
How does Hobby Lobby relate to the religious nonprofit cases before the Court now?
They are tangentially related. The Supreme Court in Hobby Lobby basically said that Hobby Lobby should be granted an accommodation too. In July 2015, the Obama administration released final rules for employers claiming a religious objection to complying with the birth control benefit. Those rules extended to Hobby Lobby, and closely held corporations like it, the accommodation that had previously only been available to religious nonprofits.
What’s RFRA again?
RFRA is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It prohibits the government from imposing “substantial burdens” on a person’s religious exercise.
When a person—or corporation, because, remember, in the eyes of the law, corporations are people—files a lawsuit claiming that a particular law violates RFRA, the courts must determine whether or not the law imposes a “substantial burden” on religious freedom. If it does, the courts next must determine whether the government imposed the substantial burden in order to accomplish a really important goal, or a “compelling interest.” If it did, the courts finally must determine whether or not that substantial burden is the “least restrictive means” of accomplishing that really important goal.
What is the compelling interest in these cases?
The Obama administration has argued that the birth control benefit promotes women’s healthfulness and reduces inequality in health-care costs between women and men.
The legislative record on the ACA is replete with information about how women have been getting screwed in health-care services. Insurance companies engage in absurd shenanigans like declaring pregnancy a preexisting condition, for example; women pay 68 percent more than men for out-of-pocket medical costs. The birth control benefit, along with the other women’s health preventive care services included in the ACA, are intended to reduce those costs and bring the cost of women’s health care in parity with men’s.
What is the substantial burden in these cases?
That’s the million-dollar question. RFRA’s provisions don’t apply to simply any burden on religion. They apply to substantial burdens on religion. And whether or not a particular burden on religion is a substantial one is a legal question that courts must decide. Petitioners argue that the monetary sanctions for noncompliance are the burden—the millions of dollars the government will force them to pay if they refuse to comply with the law.
The Obama administration has responded that there is no burden on the petitioners’ rights because the petitioners don’t have to comply with the law at all if they don’t want to. They can apply for, and would likely be granted, an accommodation, in which case they would face no financial penalties, or even additional administrative costs related to coordinating contraceptive coverage. That’s the argument the Roberts Court is going to untangle.
It is true that courts are not allowed to question the sincerity of a particular religious belief. If petitioners say that filling out a form burdens their religion, then fine, the courts should accept that claim. Filling out a form burdens their religion. Courts have to take petitioners’ word for it. But they don’t have to take petitioners’ word as to the substantiality of the burden.
Petitioners in the seven cases each claim that the birth control benefit substantially burdens their religious freedom because it forces them to “facilitate” access to contraceptives and to pay exorbitant fines if they refuse. They also question whether or not the government’s stated interest in gender equality and women’s healthfulness is “compelling,” and contend that the government has not adopted the “least restrictive means” of accomplishing said goal.
Why do petitioners claim that filling out the form is a substantial burden?
Petitioners have argued that the task of filling out the form “triggers” or “facilitates” the ability of their employees to get coverage elsewhere. Petitioners may not be required to pay for or provide the coverage, but they claim that the self-certification process does not absolve them from “complicity in sin.” After all, the process still results in the delivery of contraceptive coverage to their employees and students from a third party.
“Petitioner[s] refuse to ‘comply’ with the contraception mandate by filing the ‘self-certification’ or ‘notification,’ since the submission of either document would result in the objectionable coverage being delivered to their employees and students in connection with their health plans,” reads one of the briefs filed with the Supreme Court.
But that’s not true.
As Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals judge Richard Posner pointed out when he rejected the trigger argument in University of Notre Dame v. Burwell, signing the form is a mere administrative exercise that doesn’t trigger, cause, or authorize employees to get contraception where they could not obtain it before. The employees and students of religious nonprofits are already entitled to that coverage through the ACA. The self-certification process simply identifies which organizations have declined to get involved in contraceptive delivery, so the government can hand off the responsibility to a third party. In other words, the employees and students are going to obtain birth control whether the organizations want it or not.
And that’s what petitioners oppose. Stripped down, their argument amounts to “We don’t want to be involved in providing contraception to our employees and we don’t want anyone else to provide it either.”
But the law does not permit petitioners to dictate the independent actions of third parties.
The petitioners even want to stop their insurers from providing contraceptive coverage absent any involvement from religious nonprofits. As one of the briefs explicitly says, “[P]etitioners’ faith precludes them from contracting with or offering health plans through any company that is authorized, obligated, or incentivized to deliver such coverage to their plan beneficiaries in connection with their health plans.” Simply put, the religious nonprofits don’t want to contract with any company that provides contraceptives.
Only one court of appeals, the Eighth Circuit, has bought the trigger argument. Not even the Fifth Circuit—the court that thinks if a woman has to drive hundreds of miles to get an abortion it’s fine because in Texas the roads are flat and she can speed—has been onboard.
What about the nuns? Why is the Obama administration forcing nuns to provide contraceptive coverage?
As Jessica Mason Pieklo has pointed out for Rewire, due to ERISA, the plan administrator for the Little Sisters has no legal duty to provide contraception. And there’s no way for the Obama administration to force the Little Sisters to do so:
[B]ecause these disputes center around employer-sponsored benefit plans, they fall under the umbrella of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). According to the Obama administration, and further explained in this excellent piece by Sarah Posner, ERISA already bars any government regulation of an employee benefit plan run by a church. That prohibition on “church plans” is incorporated into the ACA. This means that, per the Obama administration, the plan administrator for the Little Sisters has no legal duty to provide the services at all, and there is no way to compel it to do otherwise. In other words, even if the Little Sisters loses its legal challenge to the mandate, it still won’t have to provide its employees with contraception coverage, and there’s nothing the administration can do about it.
So why are the Little Sisters even bothering to sue?
As Pieklo has pointed out, they are being used by conservative culture warriors to test the outer limits of what a substantial burden is. It’s a classic case of litigators choosing their plaintiffs carefully, much like conservatives did when they chose the “plump grandmas” to challenge abortion clinic buffer zones. If filling out paperwork is a substantial burden on religion, then “substantial burden” ceases to have any legal meaning.
“With the ‘substantial burden’ hurdle removed, complying with practically any law could be characterized as a religious objection and used by employers to avoid complying with a host of government regulations,” Pieklo writes.
What’s going to happen?
That’s the big question. When the Roberts Court ruled businesses like Hobby Lobby and Eden Foods could assert corporate religious objections to the birth control benefit, Justice Anthony Kennedy relied heavily on the existence and presumed reasonableness of the accommodation process to justify extending the same kind of break to other businesses in his opinion for the Court. That should suggest the accommodation is safe.
But almost immediately after issuing the Hobby Lobby decision, the Court turned around and told Wheaton College, one of the very first religiously affiliated nonprofits to object to the accommodation, that it would likely be successful on its claims the accommodation process also violates RFRA.
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and refused to grant Wheaton College an injunction. And, like we said earlier, only one federal court of appeals has even accepted the nonprofits’ arguments. For a while, legal observers questioned whether the cases would even make it up to the Roberts Court, yet here we are. Maddening, isn’t it?
So who knows if the Roberts Court will uphold the process or not. But what we do know is that conservatives won’t stop mounting legal challenges to the birth control benefit, as long as it remains law.
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 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 andConnections, 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.
Like This Story?
Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.
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 Todayin 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 Rewireafter 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 Timesexplained:
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 expertsRewire 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, Rewirewrote 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.