Texas Schools Struggle With Bible Literacy Courses

By: Dallas Morning News Email
By: Dallas Morning News Email

By JESSICA MEYERS / The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS -- A new state law requires that Texas public schools incorporate Bible literacy into the curriculum, but it provides no specific guidelines, funding for materials or teacher training. So high schools are left scrambling to figure out what to teach and how to teach it.

A handful of North Texas districts are offering an elective class, but most are choosing instead to embed Old and New Testament teachings into current classes.

Such broad parameters leave one of the most controversial topics in public schools virtually unregulated, say religious scholars and confused educators. They warn that the nebulous law may have thwarted its purpose - to examine the Bible's influence in history and literature.

"Asking a school district to teach a course or include material in a course without providing them any guidance or resources is like sending a teacher into a minefield without a map," said Mark Chancey, an associate professor of Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University and author of the report "Teaching the Bible in Texas Public Schools."

"There's an irony in this as well," he said. "Teachers have to teach without the training the law requires."

Legislators did create provisions to ensure that a course maintained "religious neutrality" by mandating teacher training, state-approved materials and curriculum standards considered adequate by the attorney general. But they did not specify what that training included nor did they allocate funds for it.

The state Board of Education provided little further guidance. It said the curriculum for independent studies classes in English and social studies already covered the Biblical material. And Texas Education Agency officials said they did not request funding because materials and training were already covered for those two courses.

The bill's sponsor, Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, blames the education agency for the confusion surrounding the law.

"TEA had the duty to prepare teachers to teach the course but they neglected to request funds," he said. "I assumed the funds were there."

Other states like Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee have wrestled with these issues, but they've created much clearer expectations and standards, said Steven Friesen, the UT Religious Studies professor who hosted this summer's Bible literacy workshop.

Districts are treading carefully.

"There's a lot of opportunity for a district to misstep," said Dennis Muizers, Lovejoy ISD's assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and assessment. "There's quite a bit of latitude in addition to a lack of development for teachers. It's a double-edged sword."

That district offered a Bible in literature class last year, but since fewer than 15 students signed up this year, Lovejoy will not offer it.

Wylie ISD will also offer the course this year for the first time. Duncanville has taught it in previous years and will continue to do so this semester.

Many North Texas schools seem to be sidestepping the issue by saying they already teach the Bible when analyzing allusions in Shakespeare or discussing ancient Mesopotamia.

Frisco ISD plans to add nuggets to its World History course this spring. Irving ISD has "beefed up" its material to meet the curriculum requirement. McKinney ISD will wait until the state offers teacher training before it establishes a course, but says that religious literature is already taught in existing courses.

Dallas ISD won't offer a class either.

"The operative word in the bill is 'may,'." said district spokesman Jon Dahlander.

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