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New state curriculum's biblical content could expose districts to legal challenges; Denton ISD waits to weigh in

A group of students and their teacher are scattered among tables and chairs in a well-lit library.
Lucinda Breeding-Gonzales
Denton Record-Chronicle
Students gather in the library at Denton ISD's Sandbrock Ranch Elementary School, between Aubrey and Ponder, in 2022.

Late in May, the Texas Education Agency released a new elementary school curriculum that supporters say is designed to improve academic performance.

Within 24 hours, critics said the curriculum was infused with biblical content and reflects the Texas Republican Party’s push to use the classroom as a pulpit for evangelical Christian theology. And while Christian churches still dot the Denton County landscape, public school hallways and classrooms look like the rest of the country: a place of religious pluralism and ethnic diversity.

The proposed instructional materials added biblical content to reading and language arts lessons for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

The material is available for public review and feedback through Aug. 16.

Texas school districts don’t have to use the new curriculum, but there is a financial incentive: Districts could receive up to $60 per student should they implement the elementary school instructional materials. Districts can also choose from materials by approved vendors.

The open source material was released around the same time the Texas Republican Party held its state convention and approved a party platform that asks the State Board of Education to “require instruction on the Bible, servant leadership and Christian self-governance.”

Denton ISD leaders said they prefer to wait to comment until after the state board votes on the materials but have been paying attention to the curriculum and the broader discussion around it.

“Denton ISD complies with the State of Texas’ adoption cycle of instruction materials and curriculum review,” Julie Zwahr, the district’s communications chief, said in a statement. “Our classroom curriculum is based on the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) which means when the TEKS are updated, our curriculum is updated.”

Evelyn Brooks, a Republican who represents the State Board of Education’s District 14, which covers Denton County, didn’t respond to an email inquiry by Friday afternoon, but her board biography repeats a prominent part of her campaign. Her philosophy has been to help students develop a biblical worldview.

The Denton Record-Chronicle sought input from local religious groups, but potential sources declined, saying they didn’t know enough about the instructional material to comment.

The TEA created the curriculum in response to House Bill 1605, which passed during the 2023 legislative session and directed the agency to create its own textbooks to give teachers high-quality materials, and to give them relief from time spent making or looking for lesson plans.

Gov. Greg Abbott released a statement in favor of the materials and thanked the TEA for its work.

“The materials will also allow our students to better understand the connection of history, art, community, literature, and religion on pivotal events like the signing of the U.S. Constitution, the Civil Rights Movement, and the American Revolution,” Abbott said.

His remarks reflect a cultural assumption that the United States was intended to be a Christian nation, although God, Jesus and Yahweh aren’t mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. While the Declaration of Independence does refer to “Nature’s God,” a “Creator” and “divine Providence,” the founding document doesn’t name or promote denominational governance.

Ryan Jayne, a senior legal counsel for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes the separation of church and state, said Texas school districts could risk violating student and faculty civil rights if they don’t implement the curriculum carefully.

“Material is not immune from a First Amendment challenge just because it is recommended by the state,” Jayne said in an email. “Beyond the material itself, the main cause for concern is that teachers who use this material may get the false impression that they are allowed to teach religious lessons.

“Some of these materials present fictional Bible stories as though they are historical (e.g. the Book of Esther), which inappropriately endorses a literal reading of the Bible rather than teaching it from a secular perspective.”

Jayne joined others in saying that there is space in the school curriculum to teach about religion and how it has informed — and still informs — American and local culture.

“Teaching about religion in public schools is legally sound, but schools need to be very careful not to favor one religion over another, or religion over nonreligion,” Jayne said. “The best example of doing this the right way is a comparative religions class at the high school level, with a teacher who presents information on multiple religions regarding history, art, literature, etc.

“It is much more suspect when religion is taught to younger students, and when it focuses on one religious text over others, both of which are the case in TEA’s new elementary school materials. A public school class on religion should not resemble a Christian Sunday school religious lesson.”

Ovidia Molina, the president of the Texas State Teachers Association, said the same in a statement. She advised caution in adding Bible stories or biblical references to instructional materials.

“Our public schools were created to teach facts to children of all religions or no religion, not to indoctrinate students in the teachings of selected religions,” Molina said.

“This is consistent with the separation of church and state principle under which our country has operated since its beginning. It is appropriate for public schools to provide a historical or literary context in the study of various religions, their writings and their beliefs. But it is inappropriate for public schools to teach these writings and beliefs as historical facts.

“Public education is not Sunday school.”

With 10 of the 15 representatives being Republican, the State Board of Education will likely approve the new curriculum in November.