High Noon In Austin

AU Activist Brian Spears Fires Back At Cranky Critics On The Texas School Board Of Education

Brian Spears can proudly say he has done his best to school the Texas State Board of Education.

Spears, president of the Austin Americans United Chapter, recently testified before the board in opposition to the ultra-conservative faction’s latest political stunt – a resolution criticizing publishers for supposedly promoting “pro-Islamic/anti-Christian” bias in world history textbooks.

When Spears was finished with his Sept. 24 remarks, he found himself facing a Religious Right inquisition.

“I take issue with a statement you made that the Constitution establishes the separation of church and state,” Board Member David Bradley said.

Holding up a booklet of the Constitution and a wad of cash, Bradley smugly continued, “I have a copy of the Constitution in case you’d like one. I’ll make you the same offer that I made The New York Times – $1,000 to the charity of your choice…if you can find in this document the words ‘separation of church and state.’”

Bradley apparently thought he had outsmarted the Americans United activist. He found out he was wrong when Spears confidently countered, “It’s probably alongside ‘the right to privacy’ and ‘the separation of powers’ and other understood concepts from the Constitution that do not exist in those exact words in the Constitution.”

Responded Bradley, “OK, so then your statement was misleading?”

“No,” Spears replied, defending his testimony while receiving an appreciative chuckle from many in the audience of about 100 people.

Board Member Ken Mercer then piped up, “Do you agree the separation of church and state is not in the Constitution?”

“The phrase is not, but the concept is,” Spears asserted. He later told Church & State that it was as if the board members were just not competent enough to understand.

“It was like I was a schoolteacher, and they just weren’t getting it,” said Spears.

It’s probably true that they just don’t “get it.” In the past few years, a right-wing bloc has turned the state board into the laughing stock of the nation, pushing creationism in the science curriculum and advancing Christian-nation revisionist history as part of the social studies curriculum.

And now, they have voted “yes” on a resolution that feeds into the nation’s current bent toward Islamophobia. The resolution vows to reject textbooks that allegedly show “pro-Islamic/anti-Christian” bias. It warns that discriminatory treatment of religion may increase “as Middle Easterners buy into the U.S. public school textbook oligopoly.”

Advocates of civil rights and civil liberties said the measure is merely the latest attempt by extreme board members to politicize public education.

“This clearly is just an attempt to add fuel to the anti-Islam rhetoric currently circulating around the country,” said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. “The right-wing faction on the board needs to recognize that it is their duty to make the best decisions for students, not to push a political agenda.”

In a Sept. 23 letter, Americans United called on the board to shelve the resolution because it is based on dubious analysis, focuses on out-of-date textbooks and “undermine[s] core democratic values of inclusion and respect for all religions.”

Despite the appeals from AU, the Texas Freedom Network and other allied groups, the resolution passed 7-6. (Two board members were absent.) All of the far-right members voted as a bloc.

“This makes us look cuckoo,” said dissenting Board Member Rick Agosto. “It’s crazy. We are allowing ourselves to be distracted by this narrow-minded resolution, which is itself biased. We should have taken the higher ground on this.”

Spears, owner of a technology company in Austin, said he hopes that this settles, once and for all, that the majority of this board has taken things too far.

“The media has publicized their blatant lack of professionalism,” he said, “and people in Texas should now know they aren’t doing what’s best for the students.”