A tea party-backed state senator and more-moderate board of education member traded increasingly heated barbs Saturday night, debating a school lesson plan system that has become so politically charged it could shape next year's Texas Republican primary.
Addressing a raucous East Texas crowd of about 600 people who seemed largely evenly divided on the issue, Houston Sen. Dan Patrick argued that the online system known CSCOPE was created illegally and contains anti-American and anti-Christian lessons. Thomas Ratliff, the education board's Republican vice chairman, countered that the lessons weren't biased and that small districts across the state need CSCOPE to ensure they adhere to all curriculum requirements.
CSCOPE was created by the state's 20 state-run educational service centers, which are designed to support school districts. It offers about 1,600 model lessons that school districts could access for a per-student fee.
It was supposed to be a cost-effective way to ensure that teachers covered all state-mandated topics and was used in 877 school districts, most of which were too small to afford to build their own curriculums. CSCOPE users educate about 35 percent of the state's more than 5 million students.
Because of intellectual property concerns, many lessons weren't available to the public. That angered some conservatives, who worried about schools spending lavishly without public oversight and liberal state bureaucrats secretly corrupting classrooms by swaying students to the left.
Criticism intensified when parents discovered a lesson plan used in previous incarnations of CSCOPE that asked students to consider whether participants in the Boston Tea Party could be considered terrorists in some contexts. Another sample lesson asked students to design a flag for a new socialist country. Some critics suggested that lessons on the world's major religions contained too much material on Islam.
Patrick opened Saturday's debate arguing that studies showed students in school districts that use CSCOPE performed worse on state standardized tests that those who didn't. However, he acknowledged that his source was a survey conducted by a 9th grade business class.
When the debate shifted to the question of bias, Ratliff referred to the Boston Tea Party lesson, saying: "The lesson does not say the Boston Tea party members were terrorists. It does not say it."
Patrick shot back: "Do you think it's a good idea to plant the seed (of terrorism) in the mind of high school students?" When Ratliff tried to answer about international perspectives, hecklers shouted: "This is America! You're American!"
"Read it for yourself and see if you become a terrorist overnight," Ratliff responded.
Patrick is founder of the Texas Legislature Tea Party Caucus and a radio talk show host. He heads the Senate Education Committee but is running for lieutenant governor in a crowded field ahead of March's primaries.
Patrick hails from an urban district with schools large enough that none use CSCOPE. Ratliff said 90 percent of the school districts in his sprawling State Board of Education district use it. Still, Patrick argued that as classrooms move more increasingly toward online learning, it's especially important for parents to have oversight of what teachers are teaching.
CSCOPE has dominated state politics for months. Patrick's Education Committee held a series of hearings on it, and Patrick announced in May that the service centers had agreed to remove all online lesson plans by the end of this month.
Patrick declared CSCOPE dead, energizing grassroots groups. But, in response to Ratliff's queries at a Board of Education meeting in July, the top attorney for the Texas Education Agency suggested that CSCOPE lesson plans had simply been moved into the public domain where any school district could still use them.
Ratliff suggested Saturday that since Patrick began his attack on CSCOPE, more districts statewide have actually begun using it. He acknowledged that CSCOPE wasn't very transparent originally because of intellectual property concerns, but added that it is now in the public domain thanks to his efforts.
"Now you need to stop, and back away, and let local communities take it from here," Ratliff said.
"Don't suggest that this is a local issue," Patrick responded. "You know what local control is? A parent making a decision for their child!"