Six years ago, SMU religious studies professor Mark Chancey teamed with the Texas Freedom Network to produce a report on the Bible classes that were proliferating in the state's public school classrooms.
Chancey's not-very-surprising finding was that these classes were not so much even-handed, academically rigorous surveys of the text in its proper historical context as they were thinly veiled sermons that were filled with factual discrepancies and tended to promote a particular flavor of Bible Belt Protestantism. He took particular issue with school districts' use of material provided by National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, which he said was filled with "shoddy research, factual errors and plagiarism."
State legislators actually stepped up to the plate, passing legislation in 2007 stipulating, among other things, that Bible courses must be taught by educators who have undergone special training and must follow curriculum guidelines developed by the State Board of Education. Problem solved.
Not quite, says Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, a SBOE watchdog. While the measure looked good on paper, the Legislature opted not to fund any sort of teacher training program, and the curriculum guidelines developed by the SBOE were vague and left districts a large amount of wiggle room.
That hasn't stopped districts across the state from adding Bible classes to their course offerings. In response, Chancey and TFN have teamed up once again to see how academically rigorous -- and constitutional -- the new batch of classes are.
This time around, Chancey surveyed 60 courses from around the state. Eleven of them, including Plano ISD, were found to be "especially successful in displaying academic rigor and a constitutionally sound" approach.
"The rest of the courses still have the same sorts of problems that we documented back in '06," Chancey said in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday.
As for the other 49, "some courses were a mixed bag, some were terrible," he said. He classified 21 of those, which contained blatant factual inaccuracies and strongly favored a particular religious viewpoint, as "especially egregious." Those districts are spread around the state with two -- the Life School, a Dallas-based charter, and Duncanville ISD -- in the immediate neighborhood and a third, Prosper ISD, not far away.
Duncanville ISD gets called out quite a bit in Chancey's report, since the teacher of its Bible course, who holds a doctorate from some place called the Orthodox Baptist Institute, "relied heavily on Bible cartoons from the Hanna-Barbera series The Greatest Adventure: Stories from the Bible. But it's not the only district, as Chancey's report highlights:
- "Students in the Point Isabel ISD course spent two days watching what lesson plans describes as 'the historic documentary Ancient Aliens,' which presents 'a new interpretation of angelic beings described as extraterrestrials.' Students were then asked to write a small paragraph on how valid they think the ancient alien theory is."
- A PowerPoint slide in Klein ISD explains to students that "The Bible is united in content because there is no contractions in the writing [sic]. The reason for this is because the Bible is written under God's direction and inspiration."
- "Students in Prosper ISD ... are taught that they themselves may be living in the last days. A discussion of the seven churches of Revelation 2-3 suggests that 'each church represents a period of history' and concludes with 'the lukewarm church of the 20th century, today the last period of church history."
- "Eastland ISD, among other districts, assumes that Christians will at some point be 'raptured,' presenting students with a Venn diagram showing the pros and cons of theories that posit the rapture before the returning Jesus' 1,000-year reign and those that place it afterwards."
- "[A] Life School worksheet on Luke claims that 'many people set out to disprove the Bible including the archaeologist Sir Water Ramsay (who went to Asia Minor himself on such a quest), found this book to have been written with incredible accuracy [sic]. In fact, he could not even find one error."
- "The 'Moses and the Red Sea Crossing: Truth or Fiction' slide show in Ector County ISD's Permian High School includes this claim: 'Sad to say mainstream anti-God media do not portray these true facts in the light of faith. But prefer to sceptically [sic] doubt such archaeological proofs of the veracity & historicity of the Biblical account, one of the most accurate history books in the world"
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- Amarillo ISD's course materials included "a chart titled "Racial Origins traced from Noah" that uses modern racial and national terminology to identify the ancient tribes mentioned in the text as descendants of the three sons. According to the chart, 'Western Europeans' and 'Caucasians' descend from Japheth, 'African races' and Canaanites from Ham, and 'Jews, Semitic people, and Oriental races' from Shem. (As Chance pointed out in today's conference call, this theory -- specifically that "African races" were the sons of Ham -- were often deployed to justify slavery. "We've basically updated the genesis story to the science of the 1850s," he said.)
- "Belton ISD's course ... makes available to its students an American Tract Society pamphlet titled 'One Nation Under God' that begins 'The United States was founded on the principles of liberty in the Holy Bible and the reverence of the Founding Fathers. ... It then asks, 'Would you like to place your trust in Jesus Christ and receive Him as your Savior from Sin?'"
For Chancey, the takeaway from all this is that Texas "has a long way to go before we can say that we are giving religious literacy and religious liberty their due." Miller tends to agree.
"First, the Legislature should appropriate funds to create a proper teacher training course for these Bible classes," Miller said. "Second, the State Board of Education needs to revisit its" curriculum guidelines. She hopes those things will happen during the current legislative session.