AUSTIN -- The debate over whether to teach creationism as an alternative to evolution in Texas public schools is part of a new documentary entitled "The Revisionaries."
Begun as a graduate student project at the University of North Texas, director Scott Thurman's documentary stars the State Board of Education (SBOE), the 15-member elected panel charged with setting curriculum and textbook standards for more than 4.8 million Texas students.
The key players include former SBOE chair and creationist Don McLeroy and board member Cynthia Dunbar, with Texas Freedom Network president Kathy Miller and evolutionary expert Ron Wetherington serving as foils.
The movie, which debuted at New York's Tribeca Film Festival, has already stirred national interest from the likes of Comedy Central host and satirical pundit Stephen Colbert, who interviewed McLeroy as the guest on Monday night's episode of the "Colbert Report."
As one of the largest single purchasers of textbooks in the United States, for years the decisions made in Texas have had a ripple effect far beyond the state's borders.
"It makes for a better business model if you can develop one set of books and sell them to lots of customers," explained Monty Exter, governmental relations for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. "So they've catered to us and then gone around and sold those same books throughout the country, giving us a disproportionate amount of control over what's taught everywhere."
One of the movie's key protagonists, Miller has long been an outspoken critic of McLeroy's. After attending the film's debut at Tribeca and Texas debut Sunday in Dallas, Miller said she was pleased with the finished result and reception.
"In both cases the audiences were very receptive to the film, very interested in the film, and in essence kind of horrified at the way that these curriculum and textbook decisions are made in Texas," said Miller.
"Scott did a great job of letting the characters tell the story," said Miller. "But the story becomes how teaching evolution and teaching social studies gets drafted into the culture wars, and the fundamental question that is raised by this movie is, 'Should experts and teachers make decisions about what we teach our kids or should partisan politicians?'"
Defense of McLeroy has taken to the Web. A website set up by the Liberty Institute aims to defend many of the board's decisions, as well as correct what it labels as misinformation spread by critics of the board's conservative members.
The board's power beyond Texas may be diminishing, or at least changing.
"In some ways the board still has quite a lot of power," said Exter. "I will say over recent years, and due to some of the events that have been documented in the film, their power has been diminished. In fact, I would almost say that the film at this point, even though it's just now coming out, really offers more of a historical perspective."
With the adoption of new national core curriculum by 45 states, whether Texas' outsize influence will continue is yet to be written. With recent discussion surrounding paring down the board's large districts and creating more seats to promote diversity, how the board will look and behave in the future is a topic of much speculation.
Exter argues adjusting the size and number of districts may not do much, instead offering up ideas including requiring board members to have a teaching background and holding non-partisan elections.
"I don't know that an 'R' or a 'D' really should be attached to those names," said Exter. "Our local school board elections are non-partisan, so it sort of makes sense that our state school board election would also be a non-partisan election."
According to the website, the documentary is set for upcoming screenings in Boston and Toronto, but none in Austin.