AUSTIN -- State Board of Education members were urged by dozens of witnesses to rewrite various sections of proposed curriculum standards for social studies Wednesday as the board prepared to vote for the first time on new requirements for U.S. history, government and other social studies courses.
Among the diverse recommendations from witnesses were calls for more coverage of Sikhism - the world's fifth largest religion - and inclusion of material on Texas naval history.
There also was testimony from groups and individuals who supported the standards written last year by writing teams - made up of teachers and academics - appointed by the education board. Dallas members of the National Council of Jewish Women, for example, said the proposed standards avoid promotion of any existing religions - a tenet they want to see preserved by the board. The "culture wars" over religion and other controversial topics "are distracting the State Board of Education and our schools from making sure our children get a sound education," said Joani Cohan of Dallas, representing the group.
There were signs that the board will be divided over how much to emphasize religion in U.S. history classes. Board member Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, noted there is no mention of the principle of separation of church and state in the U.S. Constitution and he pointed out that the constitutions of all 50 states refer to God. Mercer and other social conservatives on the board believe religion has not been given enough coverage in the proposed standards and are expected to push several amendments on Thursday. The public hearing is expected to run several hours, with the first board votes on the standards scheduled for Thursday.
More than 130 people signed up to testify on the proposed curriculum standards.
Unlike science, where most of the debate was over evolution, the list of topics to be discussed for social studies is lengthy, ranging from which historical figures should be highlighted to what role Christianity and the Bible played in the founding of the nation.
Minority rights groups are pushing for more coverage of Hispanics in history classes, saying members of that group are generally ignored in the standards. Social conservatives want religion given more emphasis, and civil rights groups and their allies are warning the board to avoid any action that jeopardizes the religious freedom of students.
On Tuesday, the Texas Freedom Network sounded the theme of separation of church and state, saying that some social conservatives want to push their personal and religious views into the curriculum for public schools.
"We all agree that students should learn about the influence of faith in our nation's history," said Kathy Miller, president of the group. "But students should not learn in their public school classrooms that the United States favors one faith over all others and that the Founders really didn't intend to protect religious freedoms at all."
On the other side, a new e-mail campaign to sway Republican board members who are not part of the panel's social conservative bloc urged them to resist "extreme left wing ideology" reflected in the proposal curriculum standards and "support measures to strengthen teaching of Texas' and America's Christian heritage."
The campaign also called on the board members to oppose efforts to add historical figures to the standards "simply because of ethnicity or gender."
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