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A battle over books in Texas

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In a couple of days, the Texas State Board of Education, at the end of its annual review, will decide whether to accept or reject proposed textbooks.

A textbook review may sound fairly tame, but in the Lone Star State it can stir serious controversy, as looks to be the case this year.

Last week the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, based in Dallas, filed a lawsuit against the Texas board, charging it with violating First Amendment rights when it rejected an environmental science textbook for use in state high schools.

The book, TLPJ charges, was academically sound but was rejected because the board judged it to be out of line with both Christian and free enterprise principles - criteria the legal group feels are political and shouldn't be applied to textbooks.

It's a case of conservative special-interest groups wielding inappropriate power over academic interests, critics charge, a particularly serious concern in Texas, where texts there have the potential to impact classrooms far beyond the state's borders.

With 4.1 million public schoolchildren, Texas is the second-largest textbook buyer in the country, trailing only California. Because Texas and California are such lucrative markets, textbook manufacturers tend to tailor their products to the requirements of these two states, making any changes they may require.

Because other states represent smaller markets, most publishers won't publish special editions just for them, and they often end up with the books approved by the two giants.

Some who monitor the process in Texas worry that the books approved there too often sacrifice academic quality to the concerns of watchdog groups with conservative agendas.

"Unlike most states, Texas has this centralized approval process, so a relatively small amount of pressure from the right wing can yield enormous consequences," says Samantha Smoot, president of the Texas Freedom Network (TFN), a liberal watchdog group based in Austin.

The current dispute over the science text is not the first time Texans have battled over questions of censorship connected with the review process.

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