AUSTIN, Texas — Another ideological battle is brewing as the Texas Board of Education considers adopting social studies textbooks that some academics say exaggerate the influence of Moses on American democracy but which some conservatives argue gloss over radical Islam's role in modern terrorism.
Such fights routinely thrust the Republican-majority board into the national spotlight. But whoever prevails this time will ultimately have less influence on what 5-plus million public school children in Texas are taught.
More school districts and public charter schools are utilizing a 2011 law allowing them to purchase books on their own with or without board approval — a measure that partially grew out of some lawmakers' distaste for the board's vetting process.
Already the new purchasing option has become more prominent than the traditional method in which the state directly supplies approved textbooks to public schools. This school year, Texas districts spent $284 million getting both board-approved and non-approved materials independently before seeking state reimbursement — 3.7 percent more than what the state spent on providing approved-only textbooks.
"I think the gate has opened. I don't think it's wide open yet, but I think some are starting to walk through it," said education board member Thomas Ratliff, a Mount Pleasant Republican. "I do see it happening more and more."
Determining the exact amount of non-approved books reaching classrooms is difficult. State officials don't track how much is spent exclusively on these kinds of materials since districts can buy both non-approved and approved items directly from publishers then get reimbursed, said Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe.
The 2011 law also eliminated a separate state funding allotment for technology, meaning school districts use the same funds for books as they do for items such as iPods and e-readers and the salaries of technology support staff.
Still, a survey conducted by the Instructional Materials Coordinators' Association of Texas — designed to aid school district book purchasers — found that 94 percent of recent respondents bought at least some non-board-approved books.
"There are more and more districts selecting their materials away from the (board of education) process," said Cliff Avery, the association's executive director, who added that this is what some members of the Legislature hoped to see when the law was passed.
The Fort Worth-area Mansfield school district is among those that have utilized the new purchasing freedom, buying both state-approved and non-sanctioned books.
Misty Fisher, the instructional materials coordinator for the more than 33,000-student district, said she likes having the flexibility. But she noted that while publishers offer discounts when selling directly to districts, a price ceiling set by Texas state officials doesn't apply to non-approved books. It also can take longer to get reimbursed than buying approved books directly through the state.
The largest textbook publishers in Texas and the nation — Pearson Education, McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt — still submit proposed books for board approval. The board convenes Tuesday and will vote on social studies books that will likely be used for a decade beginning next September.
Its members have already heard public complaints that some proposed textbooks exaggerate the influence of Judeo-Christian values on America's Founding Fathers, cheerlead too much for free-market ideals and downplay climate change. Others say they omitted President Ronald Reagan's role in tearing down the Berlin Wall and are overly politically correct about Muslims.
If the board decides it want edits made to some books, it can vote to withhold approval until publishers comply, or deny books outright.
"I think in some ways the flexibility (of the 2011 law) has been overlooked," said Jay Diskey, executive director of the Pre-K-12 Learning Group of the Association of American Publishers. "There's all this clamor over some content, and yet a school can buy things that are not approved by the board at all."
For years, meanwhile, the nation's second most-populous state was such a large textbook market that edits mandated by the Texas Board of Education could influence books sold around the country. But, more recently, the increasing use of electronic classroom materials has allowed publishers to better tailor lessons to meet states' needs, Diskey said.
This means that, as the board's influence wanes in Texas, its mark on the national book market is also declining.