illustration by Eamonn Fitzmaurice/四虎影院

Exclusive: Texas Seeks to Inject Bible Stories into Elementary School Reading Program

The move has the potential to bring classical education to over 2 million students, but raises questions about 鈥榬eligious and ideological agendas.鈥

Texas elementary school students would get a significant dose of Bible knowledge with their reading instruction under a sweeping curriculum unveiled Wednesday. 

From the story of Queen Esther 鈥 who convinced her husband, the Persian king, to spare the Jews 鈥 to the depiction of Christ’s last supper, the material is designed to draw connections between classroom content and religious texts.

鈥淚f you’re reading classic works of American literature, there are often religious allusions in that literature,鈥 state education Commissioner Mike Morath told 四虎影院. 鈥淎ny changes being made are to reinforce the kind of background knowledge on these seminal works of the American cultural experience.鈥 

Texas education Commissioner Mike Morath said students need some context from the Bible to 鈥渨restle鈥 with ideas in 鈥済reat works of literature.鈥 (Melissa Phillip/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images)

With the potential to reach over 2 million K鈥5 students in the nation鈥檚 second-largest state, the update marks a big step in a movement embraced by conservatives to root young people鈥檚 education in what they consider traditional values. But it鈥檚 bound to raise questions about the potential for religious indoctrination in a state that has been a battleground for such disputes. Last year, for example, Texas passed a law allowing to work as school counselors.

鈥淚t is reasonable to devote some attention to [the Bible], and state education standards across the nation often require such attention,鈥 said Mark Chancey, a religious studies professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. 鈥淭he problem, of course, is that sometimes the legitimate reason of cultural literacy is used as a smokescreen to hide religious and ideological agendas.鈥

In an interview with a Christian talk show, GOP , who describes himself as a 鈥,鈥 praised the curriculum changes, saying they will 鈥済et us back to teaching, not necessarily the Bible per se, but the stories from the Bible.鈥

The release comes four days after the state Republican party calling on the legislature and the state Board of Education to require instruction on the Bible. Texas education department officials declined to comment on the platform and have emphasized that the new curriculum includes material from other faiths.

While largely hidden from public view, the redesign sparked behind-the-scenes debate long before its release. When a leading curriculum publisher balked at the state鈥檚 request to infuse its offerings with biblical content, Texas officials turned to other vendors. They include conservative Christian in Michigan and the right-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation, which an unsuccessful to require the 10 Commandments in every classroom, according to a list obtained by 四虎影院.

Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told a Christian radio show that the state is working on a curriculum that will add 鈥渟tories from the Bible.鈥 (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

鈥楪reat works of literature鈥

Going far beyond typical reading and writing fundamentals, the new lessons draw on history, science and the arts 鈥 鈥渨hat many people call this classical model of education,鈥 Morath said.

To understand 鈥,鈥 a book about a Jewish family hiding in Denmark during World War II, he said students should understand more about 鈥淛ewish cultural practices鈥 and 鈥渢he vilification of this ethnic minority.鈥 

A unit on 鈥淔ighting for a Cause,鈥 one of several that officials shared with 四虎影院, includes the Old Testament story of Esther and how she and her cousin Mordecai 鈥渇ought for what they knew was right and made a difference that not only affected the Jews of Persia but also Jewish people today.鈥

The mentions range in size from a page on Esther to a few paragraphs about Samuel Adams at the Continental Congress. His plea to fellow delegates to pray together, despite religious differences, is offered as a first-grade vocabulary lesson on the word 鈥渃ompromise.鈥 

Fifth graders are asked to read Martin Luther King Jr.鈥檚 鈥.鈥 Written after his 1963 arrest for leading a , King compared his act of civil disobedience to the 鈥渞efusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar鈥 in the Book of Daniel.

Caption: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., third from right, walked to a press conference in Birmingham, Alabama, on May 15, 1963, about a month after he was arrested for a demonstration against racism and wrote 鈥淟etter from a Birmingham Jail.鈥 (Bettmann/Contributor)

鈥淚f you don’t know who Nebuchadnezzar is, you don’t know what [King鈥檚] talking about,鈥 Morath said. 鈥淗ow do you make sure that you can unlock in the minds of our kids their ability to wrestle with 鈥 ideas that have surfaced in great works of literature?鈥 

Not just literature, but art. A lesson on 鈥淭he Last Supper,鈥 da Vinci鈥檚 Renaissance masterpiece, points fifth graders to the New Testament. 

鈥淭he Bible explains that Jesus knew that after this meal, he would be arrested, put on trial, and killed,鈥 the text reads. 鈥淟et鈥檚 read the story in the book of Matthew to see for ourselves what unfolded during the supper.鈥

Curriculum revisions include details on Leonardo da Vinci鈥檚 15th century masterpiece, 鈥淭he Last Supper.鈥 (Wikimedia)

While drawing parallels to religious texts, Morath said the lessons would respect bright lines regarding the separation of church and state.

鈥淭his is still a curriculum for public school and we’ve designed it to be appropriate in that setting,鈥 he said. 

Texas School Textbooks Bible Stories

Slideshow: New religious-related material in a proposed Texas elementary school reading program includes Old Testament references to the Liberty Bell, an exploration of the meaning of the Jewish holiday Purim and the story of Christ’s last supper. (Texas Education Agency)

The role of Amplify

The redesign builds on a $19 million m delivered during the pandemic by Amplify, a based in New York.

Roughly 400 districts have used their materials since 2021. Some teachers give them high marks for building students鈥 and comprehension. But not everyone has been pleased. Last year, Morath who decried its emphasis on and minimal attention to Christianity.

鈥淭here’s one mention of Jesus, that he was a teacher a couple thousand years ago,鈥 said Jamie Haynes, who runs a on 鈥渃oncerning鈥 curriculum and library books. 鈥淭he only other time we can find God, our God 鈥 the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob 鈥 is in the American unit.鈥 

State education Commissioner Mike Morath met last year with conservative parents concerned about lessons in the state鈥檚 reading curriculum, which is based largely on Amplify鈥檚 Core Knowledge Language Arts. (Captured from YouTube)

The issue of how 鈥 and whether 鈥 to incorporate religious content was fraught long before the curriculum reached school districts.

State officials asked Amplify to provide a lesson on the story of Esther and suggested a unit on Exodus, said Alexandra Walsh, the company鈥檚 chief product officer.

While it had previously tweaked its curriculum for other states, Walsh said the company had never been asked to add biblical material. And when it suggested inserting content from other world religions, the state rejected the idea, said Amplify spokeswoman Kristine Frech.

鈥淭here was not much appetite for a variety of wisdom texts,鈥 she said. 鈥淭here was much more of an appetite for the tie to traditional Christian texts.鈥

The company opted against bidding on a contract to provide additional revisions. In a statement, Texas education officials dismissed Amplify鈥檚 charge that they turned down material from other religions as 鈥渃ompletely false鈥 and stressed that the finished product “includes representation from multiple faiths.鈥 But the state declined to specify how many of the new lessons have religious themes or derive from Judeo-Christian sources.

Caption: J. Robert Oppenheimer, right, who played a leading role in developing the atomic bomb, looked at a photo of the explosion over Nagasaki, Japan. (Bettmann/Contributor)

In an interview with 四虎影院, Morath pointed to a World War II lesson that focuses on J. Robert Oppenheimer鈥檚 upon witnessing the explosion of the first atomic bomb in Los Alamos: 鈥淣ow, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.鈥 The words, featured prominently in the recent Oscar-winning film, derive from the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture.   

Kindergarteners studying the Golden Rule would learn that the idea comes from the 鈥淐hristian Bible,鈥 according to the text, but that similar principles can be found in the 鈥渁ncient books鈥 of Islam and Hinduism. Another section on the Renaissance highlights Muslim settlers in Spain and their contributions to philosophy, poetry and astronomy.

鈥楤iblical literacy鈥

After Amplify bowed out, the state an $84 million contract to the Boston-based Public Consulting Group to revise the curriculum.

For the reading program, the company worked closely with several authors who specialize in , including its role in westward expansion and launching the national space program, according to a list of vendors provided by the state.

But it also leaned on conservative organizations steeped in the culture wars. Contracts went to two officials at the Texas Public Policy Foundation: Courtnie Bagley, the think tank鈥檚 education director, and Thomas Lindsay, a higher education director and vocal opponent of . The foundation, which called the 10 Commandments bill an 鈥渋mportant step in bringing faith-based values back to the forefront of our society,鈥 declined to comment on their contributions. Public Consulting Group officials also did not respond to questions. 

Hillsdale, another vendor, is a major player in advancing classical education. It authored the , a civics and history model that emphasizes American exceptionalism and is a favorite of conservatives opposed to lessons on institutional racism. When the Florida Department of Education dozens of math textbooks in 2020, citing content influenced by critical race theory, a analysis showed two Hillsdale representatives objected to the proposed materials.

The state did not respond to questions on the role Hilldale and the Texas Public Policy Foundation played in the new curriculum. Hillsdale officials said they provided their feedback free of charge. 

鈥淗illsdale never profits from its work in K-12, nor does it accept one penny from federal, state or local taxpayers,鈥 said spokeswoman Emily Davis. She added, 鈥淩eligion is taught for the sake of cultural literacy, not to promote a particular religion.鈥 

Originally the province of well-heeled private or parochial schools, classical education has blossomed in recent years both as a response to pandemic lockdowns and what some parents view as progressive trends in traditional public schools. The philosophy is rooted in the liberal arts and historical texts, with a sharp focus on the Greek and Roman foundations of Western civilization.

They're going to need to have some biblical literacy, if only to interpret John Milton, or Dante or Shakespeare.

Robert Jackson, Flagler College

The movement entertains healthy debate about the role of religion, but most practitioners agree that giving students a strong body of knowledge requires the use of primary sources, including the Bible.

鈥淭hey’re going to need to have some biblical literacy, if only to interpret John Milton, or Dante or Shakespeare,鈥 said Robert Jackson, a senior research fellow with the at Florida鈥檚 Flagler College.

鈥楧evotional in nature鈥

In Texas, the proposed changes would go far beyond any previous attempt to inject biblical content into its classrooms.

A allows school districts to offer high school electives on the Bible. Demand has been extremely low, however. According to the Texas Education Agency, just over 1,200 of the state鈥檚 1.7 million took the course this year.

But even with their limited scope and popularity, the courses offer ample fodder for skeptics. Writing for the Texas Freedom Network, a religious liberty and civil rights organization, Chancey, the Southern Methodist professor, the courses to be 鈥渆xplicitly devotional in nature.鈥 Despite requirements for teachers to complete special training and maintain 鈥渞eligious neutrality,鈥 Chancey wrote that the Protestant Bible was the preferred text in these courses, while Catholic, Hebrew and Eastern Orthodox Bibles were 鈥減resented as deviations from the norm.鈥 In several districts, the courses were taught by local ministers.

Sometimes the legitimate reason of cultural literacy is used as a smokescreen to hide religious and ideological agendas.

Mark Chancey, Southern Methodist University

The state is now working with a much larger canvas: not a mere elective, but an entire elementary reading curriculum, with a potential audience of millions of students.

Officials are quick to point out that adoption of the new program is voluntary. But a potential $60 per-student it is offering for participation may make it difficult for school systems to refuse.

The updated materials are now open for public review and are scheduled to go before the state Board of Education for approval this fall. Aicha Davis, a Democrat on the Republican-led board, predicted 鈥渢hey would totally support something like that.鈥

鈥淚t doesn鈥檛 surprise me that this is happening,鈥 she said.

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