New Rule Aimed at Putting Actual Experts on Textbook Review Panels Passes State Board

File this under State Board of Education news that isn't depressing and won't cause you to despair for Texas public education. The SBOE passed long-overdue rules Friday aimed at giving priority to the placement of experts and teachers with actual subject-matter expertise on textbook review panels. It's a positive step because the objections raised by expert reviewers may prompt publishers to alter their textbooks.

The adoption of a popular Pearson biology text this fall was mired in anti-evolution objections made by a single reviewer, Ide Trotter, a retired Duncanville financial adviser, chemical engineer by training and vocal creationist. His objections were later refuted, point by point, by Dr. Ron Wetherington, an SMU anthropology professor and expert reviewer, and by a second panel of experts that approved the book.

How these new rules are put into practice will be the real test. For its biology textbook review, SBOE members installed reviewers whose qualifications were, shall we say, tough to pin down: A dietitian from College Station, a systems engineer from Austin, both creationists, of course.

"The implementation of that rule is going to be key," says Texas Freedom Network spokesman Dan Quinn. "I mean, [SBOE Chair] Barbara Cargill was saying a dietitian is an expert in biology because she took science classes in college."

SBOE adopted a second rule aimed at preventing board members from exerting influence over the expert panels. There were reports last summer that Cargill spent a curious amount of time with the panelists as they reviewed biology texts in a Austin hotel ballroom. "Cargill reportedly spent time with all of the biology review panels but considerably more working with a panel that includes arch-creationist Raymond Bohlin, vice president of vision outreach for the fundamentalist Christian organization Probe Ministries in Plano," TFN noted.

The expert review panels are supposed to be independent. "State Board of Education members may no longer communicate with the reviewers about the material they're reviewing," Quinn says. "They can talk about process, how are your kids, things like that. But never again will Barbara Cargill be able to pull up a chair and sit down with review teams and guide their work. That's what she did on the biology textbook review and her participation there compromised the process."