Some Texas school officials are skeptical that a K-12 curriculum with Christian influences is the lifeline state leaders promise

Proposed lesson plans could improve student performance and help teachers, Texas education officials say. Not all districts and education advocates are convinced.

TEXAS, USA — This story was first published on the Texas Tribune and can be viewed here.

Texas education officials and Republican lawmakers say proposed elementary school lessons that incorporate extensive biblical references will boost student achievement and save teachers time from developing their own curriculum.

But some Texas school district leaders, parents and education advocates aren’t convinced things are so clear cut.

The Texas Education Agency last week released thousands of pages of instructional materials that make up a proposed elementary school curriculum that drew immediate criticism for infusing religion — particularly Christianity — into public schools. If the State Board of Education adopts the curriculum, school districts that use it could get an additional $60 per student in state funding.

While that financial incentive would entice some district leaders to consider the state’s lesson plans, some say they are already satisfied with their current curriculum. And, superintendents said, district employees will need time to weigh whether the content adds value for their students, especially if they include biblical references that raise questions about church-state separation.

“The law is clear cut to us — you don’t teach your students a particular religion,” said Stan Surratt, superintendent of Lindale Independent School District, which sits in conservative Deep East Texas. “You can talk about different religions, but we don’t teach Christianity to our students.”

The materials feature Christian references throughout the kindergarten through fifth grade lessons. References include the parable of the good Samaritan in a social studies unit and the teaching of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” in a kindergarten unit about fairy tales and folktales. The materials note that the golden rule is a “core teaching of the Bible” that comes from “Jesus’ sermon on the mount.”

School district leaders said they have not yet reviewed the material themselves, but that the biblical references could be cause for concern.

Public schools are legally prohibited from promoting particular religious beliefs. In Texas, some public schools teach world religions to high school students, and some offer a Bible elective class in high schools. Elementary school students are not usually taught religion.

Michael Lee, superintendent of Booker Independent School District in the Texas Panhandle, said his students already perform well under their current curriculum. Still, the possibility of an additional $60 per student is enticing for the small, rural district that has a limited budget.

“We will certainly look at the curriculum,” Lee said. “We will look at any area to find a dollar.”

The new curriculum was released amid a broader push by Texas Republicans, who control state government, to put more Christianity in public schools. During the Texas GOP convention last month, delegates voted on a platform that calls on lawmakers and the SBOE to “require instruction on the Bible, servant leadership and Christian self-governance.”

Following last month’s primary runoffs, Gov. Greg Abbott declared he has enough votes in the Texas House to pass a bill allowing parents to use so-called school vouchers, which will let them use taxpayer money to subsidize private school tuition. Nationwide, most money from voucher programs have been directed to religious schools, according to a Washington Post examination. Such a measure has repeatedly failed in the House, where rural Republicans and Democrats have voted against it.

For Texas school district leaders — including those in the most conservative Christian parts of the state — calls for religious instruction are alarming.

“This is just one more idea that is clouding the line between private schools and public schools,” said Brandon Dennard, superintendent of Red Lick Independent School District, a small East Texas district that serves about 500 students. “I’m a conservative Christian man but I’m in public education because I want to serve all kids. I could work for a private school but I choose to work for a public school that is available to all people.”

Pilot program

Last year, lawmakers entered the legislative session with a historic $32.7 billion budget surplus. Public school administrators were hopeful that some of that money would go toward increasing teacher salaries, raising the base allotment that schools receive per student and overhauling the state’s school funding formula. Public school advocates achieved none of these gains. School funding got caught up in the political battle over school vouchers, and neither vouchers nor meaningful funding increases passed.

What did pass, though, was House Bill 1605, which authorized the education commissioner to create instructional materials and approve electronic K-12 curricula that cover the state’s standards.

Historically, the state has created curriculum standards, or a list of information students are expected to know to pass their grade level. Districts are free to meet those standards using the materials they see fit.

HB 1605 does not mandate that districts use state-approved lesson plans, but it offers money to those that do. Districts that opt into using the resources could require their teachers to use the materials.

Some districts have piloted state-developed materials through a COVID-era program designed to support both hybrid and in-person learning. Some districts saw gains in student achievement, while others faced backlash from parents and concern from teachers.

The TEA has touted certain districts that have used the materials, like Temple and Lubbock independent school districts. TEA Commissioner Mike Morath told The Texas Tribune those districts saw increased student reading scores of up to 16 points because of the curriculum, whose materials were sourced from private vendors like Amplify.

In the Houston Independent School District, teachers have said their Amplify curriculum is riddled with errors and inappropriate content, the Houston Chronicle reported. That curriculum was not part of the TEA’s COVID pilot program but was implemented under the state’s takeover of HISD. In the Waxahachie Independent School District, concerned parents said during a March school board meeting that the Amplify materials are problematic because they represent government intrusion into local school districts.

Lynn Davenport, a Dallas-based conservative commentator and public school parent who advocated against HB 1605, said that while the new materials might be beneficial for some teachers, the dollars invested in them should have been spent elsewhere, like increasing teachers’ salaries or training teachers.

“Why are we not putting the resources in the people?” Davenport said. “They say teachers are overworked. If you talk to a teacher who this is their calling, they don’t want you coming in there telling you how to do a scripted lesson.”

Teacher shortage

A 2022 teacher vacancy task force found that teachers spend significant time creating and looking for lesson plans. Lawmakers who supported HB 1605 said the new materials will save these teachers significant time.

But some school districts say that lesson-planning is time well-spent and that their teachers would still have to spend significant time with the new state materials.

“You need teachers to be masters of their curriculum,” said Surratt, the Lindale ISD superintendent. “If they aren’t working on them and adjusting them, they aren’t going to be where they need to be.”

Surratt said his district already has high quality materials that veteran teachers spent years developing. He said a stamp of approval from the SBOE will not be enough for his district to adopt a new curriculum.

“I don’t see us doing a quick change,” Surratt said. “We will have to weigh, does this add anything to our curriculum? We have to see the quality of it.”

Some education leaders also question why the Legislature is spending millions on new instructional materials when teachers’ primary concern is low pay.

“I’ve never met a teacher who left education and said it’s because ‘I spend too much time writing curriculum,’” said Dennard, whose school district is in Northeast Texas, near the state’s border with Arkansas. “They leave because of the environment, because they aren’t being appreciated, because they aren’t being paid enough, or the kids aren’t behaving. Most teachers understand that [curriculum] is part of the job.”

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. 

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