Rob Boston at Americans United notes that the Arkansas House just voted to require the state’s Education Board to approve elective classes about the Bible if they meet appropriate standards. The Supreme Court has said the Bible may be taught about in public schools when “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.”
But teaching about the Bible without teaching it religiously is not an easy thing to do. It requires carefully designed curricula, well-intentioned and well-trained educators, and a commitment to meaningful oversight. People For the American Way was part of a religiously and politically diverse group of organizations that worked together to produce the 1999 publication The Bible in Public Schools, a First Amendment Guide. That guide emphasized that how any such course is taught will determine whether it passes constitutional muster:
When teaching about the Bible in a public school, teachers must understand the important distinction between advocacy, indoctrination, proselytizing, and the practice of religion – which is unconstitutional – and teaching about religion that is objective, nonjudgmental, academic, neutral, balanced, and fair – which is constitutional.
But that’s not how if often works in practice. In 2000, People For the American Way Foundation published a scathing expose, The Good Book Taught Wrong: Bible History Classes in Florida Public Schools. The PFAW Foundation investigation found that “Bible History” classes were often being taught more like Christian Sunday School classes from a sectarian, Protestant perspective. Bible stories were treated as literal history. Among lessons and exam questions asked of students:
That expose led Florida officials to yank those classes and revamp the curricula.
But more than a decade later, similar problems persist, as the Texas Freedom Network documented in a January report that found classes designed more to evangelize students to a literalist, fundamentalist view of the Bible rather than to teach about its role in literature and history. Included in the lesson plans examined by TFN were characterizations of Judaism as a flawed and incomplete religion, Christian-nation approaches to US history, and material “explaining” racial origins via the sons of Noah.
Are Arkansas legislators and education officials prepared to invest in the development of curricula, the training of educators, and meaningful oversight into how the classes are taught?
Yesterday morning, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas, a landmark case that could determine whether public colleges and universities can consider race as one of many factors when making admission decisions. Plaintiff Abigail Fisher, a white woman, alleges that the University of Texas discriminated against her based on her race when she was not admitted to the University of Texas in 2008. Should the Supreme Court choose to rule in favor of Fisher and rescind equality measures that were upheld by the Court just nine years ago in Grutter v. Bollinger, public colleges and universities would lose their ability to ensure a diverse student body.
People For the American Way, along with many proponents of affirmative action, rallied in front of the Supreme Court, stressing the necessity of diversity and inclusiveness in higher education. Champions of fairness and racial equality spoke, reflecting upon their own educational triumphs as a result of affirmative action and warning against a color-blind perspective that the Supreme Court may uphold. Speakers emphasized that individuals are multi-faceted, and cannot be judged solely by an SAT score or a GPA.
Speakers at the rally emphasized that a student must be evaluated wholly as an individual. A person’s race and ethnicity is part of their background and part of what they offer to the diverse university community, just like their athletic abilities or legacy family roots.
While people of color have made great strides in closing the education gap, disparities in higher education remain widespread. Colleges and universities must foster diversity and represent the vast spectrum of aspiring students and professionals. This will only enhance ingenuity, bridge the racial divides of our history, and preserve America’s platform of fairness and justice.
The mass exodus from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) continued today, as an additional 13 members of the state legislature cut ties with the corporate bill factory. Progress Texas reports:
As we have written many times before, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a corporate bill factory for model laws. The organization arranges for corporate lobbyists and conservative legislators to hold joint secret meetings to craft cookie-cutter bills that increase the profits of private companies at the public’s expense. Following public pressure from Progress Texas and its membership, 25 legislators have dropped - including every Democrat. A majority of the Texas Legislature – 96 of 181 members – is now no longer a part of ALEC.
32 corporations from across the country have also left ALEC. A complete list can be found here.
The PFAW Foundation has been key in exposing ALEC’s efforts at influencing governmental agendas at the local, state, and federal level.
People For the American Way is dedicated to fighting for equal rights, freedom of speech, religious liberty and equal justice under the law for every American. One way we do that is by supporting great progressive candidates throughout the country through the Young Elected Progressives (YEP) program. The YEP program supports progressive candidates 35 and younger running for local and state offices, helping them win elections so they can start enacting change nationwide. This is done with an endorsement from PFAW’s Action Fund, along with monetary donations, volunteer hours and political support from people like you!
We will be revealing this year’s Young Elected Progressives program endorsed candidates through a series of blog posts highlighting a few candidates and their accomplishments. Today, we’ll introduce you to State Senator Angie Buhl (SD), Representative Dwight Bullard (FL), and Mary Gonzalez (TX).
Angie Buhl is running for reelection to the South Dakota Senate, where she represents the city of Sioux Falls. Buhl was first elected in 2010 at the age of 25, becoming the youngest woman to ever serve in South Dakota’s Senate.
Buhl has quickly become a leader in the state Senate and a voice for South Dakota Democrats. She has already risen to the position of Chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus, and she serves on the Judiciary, Commerce & Energy, Retirement Laws, and Interim Rules Review Committees.
Buhl is a proven progressive champion and an advocate for equal rights. She has served on the board of Equality South Dakota, as well as South Dakotans Against Discrimination and The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. She is also an active member of affiliate PFAW Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network, which provides a network of support to elected officials 35 and under, and the National Women’s Political Caucus of South Dakota. Visit her website here.
Dwight Bullard is running for Florida Senate in the 39th district. He has served in Florida’s House of Representatives since 2008.
Bullard, a high school teacher by trade, has shown great leadership in Florida’s education system both in and out of the classroom. As the ranking Democrat in the education committee and the pre K-12 education policy committee in the state legislature, Bullard is a leader in fighting for public education reform. Bullard also sponsored the Florida DREAM Act, which creates a pathway for undocumented immigrants to get in-state tuition.
Bullard has been recognized often for his work, including receiving the Barbara Jordan Leadership Award from affiliate PFAW Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network. Additionally, he was awarded the Young Democrats of Miami Dade Outstanding Leadership Award from the Miami-Dade Democrats and the Next Generation Leader Award from the Florida Association of School Administrators. Visit his website here.
Mary E. Gonzalez
Mary E. Gonzalez is running to represent District 75 in the Texas House of Representatives. Gonzalez won the Democratic primary with 52% of the vote in a three way race back on May 29th. She will become the only current openly gay member of the Texas legislature.
Gonzalez has spent the past several years working in higher education. She has served as the Program Coordinator in the Multicultural Engagement Center at the University of Texas at Austin and was the Assistant Dean for Student Multicultural Affairs at Southwestern University. She also serves as the National President of the service sorority Kappa Delta Chi and Co-Chair of the Board of Directors for allgo, Texas' state-wide Queer People of Color organization.
Gonzalez has been named as one of the Hot 25 under 25 most influential young Latinos in the country by Latino Leaders Magazine for her leadership in education. Once elected, Gonzalez will join former state representative Glen Maxey as the only two openly LGBT members ever to serve in the Texas House. Her election may show a cultural shift in what is still a largely conservative state and gives the Texas LGBT community a voice in the Texas state government. Visit her website here .
While Florida’s local election supervisors are rebelling against a flawed voter purge championed by Gov. Rick Scott, the Houston Chronicle reports that Texas is holding its own voter purge that could jeopardize the status of hundreds of thousands of registered voters. As noted in the People For the American Way Foundation report, The Right to Vote Under Attack, faulty purge programs “can effectively disenfranchise large numbers of eligible voters” and have been frequently used to accomplish partisan agendas, and the Chronicle has already found many instances of people being wrongfully purged from the rolls:
More than 300,000 valid voters were notified they could be removed from Texas rolls from November 2008 to November 2010 - often because they were mistaken for someone else or failed to receive or respond to generic form letters, according to Houston Chronicle interviews and analysis of voter registration data.
Statewide, more than 1.5 million voters could be on the path to cancellation if they fail to vote or to update their records for two consecutive federal elections: One out of every 10 Texas voters' registration is currently suspended. Among voters under 30, the figure is about one in five.
Texas voter registration rates are among the lowest in the nation, but Texas pays nearly twice as much to cancel voters - 40 cents per cancellation - as it does to register new ones at 25 cents.
State and federal laws require the nation's voter rolls be regularly reviewed and cleaned to remove duplicates and eliminate voters who moved away or died. But across Texas, such "removals" rely on outdated computer programs, faulty procedures and voter responses to generic form letters, often resulting in the wrong people being sent cancellation notices, including new homeowners, college students, Texans who work abroad and folks with common names, a Chronicle review of cancellations shows.
People For the American Way is happy to congratulate Mary E. Gonzalez on her win last night in a Democratic primary in El Paso, Texas. She will run unopposed in November for District 75’s seat in the Texas State House of Representatives. Gonzalez, endorsed by PFAW Action Fund’s Young Elected Progressive program will be the only current openly gay member of the Texas state legislature.
Gonzalez won her primary with a decisive victory and garnered 52% of the vote. She has spent the past few years working in higher education with the University of Texas at Austin and Southwestern University. Additionally, she’s shown great leadership with her work as Co-Chair of the Board of Directors for Texas’ Queer People of Color organization.
Once elected, Gonzalez will join former State Representative Glen Maxey as the only two openly LGBT members to have served in the Texas House. Her election may show a cultural shift in what is still a largely conservative state and gives the Texas LGBT community a voice in the Texas state government. Her addition to the Texas State House of Representatives cuts the number of state legislatures without an LGBT official to 16.
One of the most absurd things to come out of American politics in recent months is the allegation that the president’s proposal to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans – bringing them back to the levels they enjoyed under Clinton -- amounts to “class warfare.”
In the Huffington Post last week, PFAW’s Michael Keegan called the GOP’s renewed cries of “class warfare” both “ironic and cynical.”
If you want to see what class warfare really looks like, you need look no further than Texas, where a group of oil companies has successfully lobbied to have a government panel re-examine a very large tax break that they were previously denied, and are now on the verge of receiving a $135 million gift from the state. Who’s paying for that gift? Public schools.
Here’s how the oil companies, led by Valero, are wrangling the refund from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, according to the AP:
Valero first asked for the refund for six of its refineries in 2007, and wants payment retroactive to that year. Since then, at least four other companies have asked for the same retroactive refund.
Valero argues the units should be exempt under a Texas law that says industrial plants don't have to pay taxes on equipment purchased to reduce on-site pollution. The law saves companies millions, and is meant to encourage investment in new technology.
At first, the request was denied. The commission's staff said the hydrotreaters reduce pollution in diesel and gas, not necessarily at the plant. In fact, staff said, the hydrotreaters actually increased sulfur dioxide pollution near the refineries because the toxic gas is now burned off in a flare.
Valero appealed, and the panel's chairman, Bryan Shaw, said last April that the Legislature likely intended a broader interpretation of the law. He instructed his staff to research whether they could award partial exemptions to Valero. Shaw declined to be interviewed for this story, saying it could present a conflict because the issue will be brought before him again.
Shaw, the environmental commissioner who encouraged the panel to take a new look at the oil company tax refund, was hand-picked for his post by Gov. Rick Perry. He’s an odd choice to head an environmental quality panel – as Mother Jones reported last week, he’s a climate change skeptic who has a long history of siding with industry over environmental groups.
But Gov. Perry’s ties to the oil industry run deep – since 1998, he’s raked in $11 million in campaign contributions from oil and gas companies, including $147,895 from Valero, the company that’s leading the effort to get the $135 million tax refund.
While oil companies enjoy expensive access to the governor and an ally at the top of one of the committees charged with holding them accountable, it’s the state’s children who are breathing polluted air and whose schools are being asked to pay for new corporate tax breaks. From AP:
Now, the AP's analysis shows, the Pasadena Independent School District may have to refund $11.3 million to two refineries if commissioners grant the request.
Early Monday, Gonzales and others handed out fliers, collected petition signatures and offered $10,000 cookies and brownies at a mock "bake sale" designed to raise awareness about the money at stake. Eight Houston schools planned similar mock sales for later in the day.
The mom-turned-activist said she learned about the refineries' requests while unsuccessfully lobbying earlier this year to convince Perry and the Legislature to dip into the state's so-called rainy day fund to ease cuts to the schools.
Gonzales lives near a miles-long stretch of refineries, where massive pipes and stacks light the night like skyscrapers do in other cities. An intense, burnt chemical scent hangs over the town.
"You smell it. That's what we're known for. Stinkadena because of the refineries," Gonzales said. "There are days when we can't go out because our children's asthma is that bad ... and then they want money back?"