AUSTIN Top education leaders in the state Senate on Thursday grilled the creators of a curriculum system used across Texas that critics claim promotes anti-American values and stifles classroom flexibility.
CSCOPE is an electronic curriculum management system that offers Web-based lesson plans and exams designed to help teachers adhere to the state educational requirements. It is now used in 875 school districts — more than 70 percent of districts statewide including Ector County Independent School District — and is supposed to be flexible enough for teachers to alter its content to meet their individual needs.
But some teachers have complained CSCOPE it too rigid, and conservative activists say it promotes biased, progressive ideology.
A string of witnesses before the Senate Education Committee raised those concerns, criticizing the program for its lack of transparency and for promoting liberal values that they said were anti-Christian at best and openly socialist at worst.
One witness compared the system to "mind control," while an algebra teacher wept as he described quitting because he felt he was "aiding and abetting a crime" by using CSCOPE in his classroom.
"Discontent is rampant across the state," said Peggy Venable, a frequent critic of public schools who is the Texas director of Americans for Prosperity.
Defending the system was Wade Lebay, director of state CSCOPE at the Region 13 Education Service Center in Austin. He said CSCOPE offers around 1,600 model lessons that districts can access for a fee of $7 per student, though additional training for teachers on how to use the system can increase the per-pupil price.
“It's built by teachers, designed by teachers and that's what's powerful about CSCOPE," Lebay said. His is one of 20 service centers statewide that serve as liaisons between school districts and the Texas Education Agency, which oversees public schools.
ECISD’s Superintendent Hector Mendez said the degree to which a teacher uses the lesson plans offered by CSCOPE is up to the teacher. Teachers bring an artistry to the classrooms at ECISD, he said.
“CSCOPE gives an explanation of the standards. It can lay out how to teach it, but we don’t force that,” Mendez said. He added that the lesson plans can be very helpful to new teachers and cited that years ago when textbooks were the core of a classroom curriculum it was apparent once the state required assessments that the textbook wasn’t covering the state’s standards.
“The beauty of this is it’s saved us a lot of money,” he said. The cost to bring in staff members to pay for writing curriculum and writing assessments outweighs the price of CSCOPE’s common curriculum.
Testifying on Thursday was former State Board of Education representative for District 1, which includes Odessa now because of redistricting, Charlie Garza. The Republican’s vantage point is especially unique given he’s a former SBOE representative (he was defeated in November by Democrat Martha Dominguez), a principal in Dallas and parent of a special needs child.
“They did the shell game. Moved things around. They wouldn’t discuss specifics. And as a result we spent six hours going in circles,” Garza said about the time spent questioning the representatives from CSCOPE, Lebay and Linda Villareal, the director of the Region 2 Education Service Center in Corpus Christi.
Garza has been persistent in requesting access to the curriculum as a father of a public school student, which is a right pursuant to Texas Education Code. He asked the same question — in four different phrasings — for that information and could not get an answer from CSCOPE.
When asked if he believed anything was resolved after Thursday’s hearing. Garza was sure of it.
“Absolutely. I tip my hat off to the committee members. I think they listened to the people. Sen. Patrick surmised it best, ‘Either I want oversight, or I want it gone,’” Garza said.
He said he would like to see the Senate join in with the House’s proposed bill for a joint, bipartisan bill that gives the SBOE oversight.
“It would provide a lot of answers to the problems,” Garza said.
Mendez said the task of oversight should be left to the experts.
“The TEA needs to step up and let people know this is a valid system,” Mendez said. “And that it’s doing what they’re asking us to do, which is to focus on the TEKS.”
Senators went on to ask Lebay about complaints that some lesson plans promoted pro-Islam ideals, or described participants of the Boston Tea Party as terrorists.
Lebay was even asked to read part of a sixth-grade lesson plan that showed different countries' flags and instructed students to "notice that socialist and communist countries use symbolism on their flags." It went on to ask students what symbols they would use if they were to create a flag for a new socialist country.
First-term Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, asked, "Does that sound like we're sympathizing with those types of countries?" He later said he found the lesson plan "very egregious as a Texan and an American."
Villareal responded, "We have 1,600 lessons, so to take just this one is...." Taylor cut her off asking, "Who is reviewing these 1,600 plans?"
Another first-year senator, Donna Campbell, a San Marcos Republican, complained about the uniformity CSCOPE imposes — though Lebay and Villareal argued it was necessary to ensure teachers best-adhere to complicated state curriculum requirements.
"Our teachers don't need to be scripted," Campbell said.
Anecdotally, Garza said he was recently contacted by a parent who said her superintendent was stunned to learn CSCOPE was under investigation. She said it was the only curriculum out there and if they didn’t get it, the children would fall behind.
“It’s false advertising,” Garza said. He said in his experience if five citizens spend the time to write a letter or an email on the same issue, it elevates to something serious, because most people don’t put the effort in to write.
In four months, Garza has received 6,232 letters and emails about CSCOPE. He stopped counting, but he guesses it’s closer to 7,000 now.
“You can’t call anybody (at CSCOPE). There’s no oversight, yet you can make millions of dollars on things that’s not questionable? Where are the checks and balances? CSCOPE is immune to that,” Garza said. He says their actions are criminal.
Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick said he'd never met a teacher who wasn't critical of CSCOPE.
The Houston Republican also objected to what he called the program's lack of transparency, complaining that parents can't access lesson plans. CSCOPE's creators say such materials aren't available publicly because of intellectual property concerns, but elected officials should be allowed access. Patrick noted, though, that Barbara Cargill, chairwoman of the State Board of Education, had requested a password to see the lessons but was ignored for months.
“What you all are doing could be great. But it’s obviously not. It's obviously a mess right now," Patrick said. "It's really, really troubling to me.”
Returning to complaints about the Boston Tea Party lesson, he added: “It's amazing that when you all called our founding fathers terrorists, in Texas, that you thought that wasn't going to cause problems.”
The Associated Press and Odessa American reporter Lindsay Weaver contributed to this story.
>> Contact Lindsay Weaver on twitter at @OAschools, on Facebook at OA Lindsay Weaver or call 432-333-7781.