TYLER, Texas (AP) — Looks like CSCOPE is ready for its close up.
Many Texans still haven't heard of the collection of controversial online lesson plans. But a raucous crowd of more than 600 filled nearly every available seat Saturday night at a University of Texas at Tyler event center, spending nearly two hours watching a debate on an issue that has now become so emotionally charged it could shape the 2014 Republican primary race for lieutenant governor.
They watched a war of words between tea party-backed Sen. Dan Patrick and Thomas Ratliff, a more moderate Republican who serves as vice chair of the State Board of Education. Patrick argued CSCOPE was created illegally and contains anti-American and anti-Christian lessons. Ratliff says the lessons aren't biased and that small school districts across Texas need CSCOPE to ensure they adhere to strict curriculum requirements.
CSCOPE was created by the 20 state-run educational service centers, which are designed to support school districts. It offered about 1,600 model lessons that districts could access for a per-student fee, and was meant to be a cost-effective way to ensure teachers in 877 school districts — most of which were too small to build their own curriculums — covered all state-mandated topics.
CSCOPE users educate about 35 percent of the state's more than 5 million public school students. But most lessons were behind a pay wall for intellectual property reasons, making them unavailable to the public. That angered some conservatives, who worried about schools spending lavishly without public oversight.
Criticism intensified when parents discovered an old CSCOPE lesson plan asking students to consider whether participants in the Boston Tea Party could be considered terrorists in some contexts. Another sample lesson asked students to design a flag for a new socialist country. Some critics also suggested that lessons on the world's major religions contained too much material on Islam.
"Do you think it's a good idea to plant the seed (of terrorism) in the mind of high school students?" Patrick asked Saturday. When Ratliff tried to answer about international perspectives, hecklers shouted: "This is America!"
"Read it for yourself and see if you become a terrorist overnight," Ratliff responded.
Patrick, a radio talk show host, heads the Senate Education Committee and has declared his candidacy for lieutenant governor; primaries are scheduled for March. The office's longtime occupant, David Dewhurst, is running for re-election but has become embroiled in a recent scandal in which he called police in a Dallas suburb and tried to intervene when a relative was arrested.
Patrick said his debate appearance wasn't about politics, instead maintaining that as classrooms move more toward online learning, it's especially important for parents to have oversight of what teachers are teaching. He also noted that CSCOPE's financial books are the subject of a state audit.
CSCOPE has dominated state politics for months. Patrick's committee held a series of hearings on it, and he announced in May that service centers had agreed to remove all online lesson plans by the end of this month. The Texas Legislature also passed a law mandating the State Board of Education vet CSCOPE materials.
Patrick declared CSCOPE dead. But Ratliff raised concerns, and it turned out that the lesson plans had simply been moved into the public domain where any school district could continue to use them.
The CSCOPE battle is only the tip of the iceberg for Texans who don't trust public school teachers and administrators, Ratliff said after the debate.
"He's not stopping," Ratliff said of Patrick, "And non-CSCOPE schools are next because, as soon as the tea party finds something in their curriculum they don't like, they're going after them."
Last week, a group of activists filed suit against central Texas' Llano Independent School District, claiming that by allowing teachers the option of using CSCOPE, it had violated state law because the Board of Education hasn't yet vetted those online lesson plans. That case was eventually thrown out.
Patrick said Saturday more lawsuits may be filed.
"I would like to think that the school districts would follow my lead and say, 'You know what, there's so many questions here, maybe we just need to step back,'" he said. "They don't know what's in the lesson plans either."