Saturday, February 24, 2018
Education

Bill aims to end state control of textbook selection

After a divisive battle over a world history textbook in Volusia County last fall, state Sen. Alan Hays received "calls, comments, emails and everything else" from irate Floridians.

Their anger, Hays said, focused on the fact that the state Department of Education had approved the book, which some complained contained a pro-Islam bias. The Volusia School Board did not bow to pressure and kept the title in its classrooms.

The senator, a conservative Republican from neighboring Lake County, said he told critics that the state gives districts more than one option when choosing textbooks. Still, they wanted to bring such decisions closer to home.

So Hays obliged.

His bill would give school districts full control over textbook selection, removing the state from the process completely. The measure also would eliminate the process that renews approved books every three to six years, and end the requirement that districts buy books through a state depository.

"I can understand the frustration and the feeling of helplessness that so many citizens are having," Hays said. "We'll find out if my colleagues agree."

Senate leaders, including President Don Gaetz, plan to make this bill a priority.

The issue ties into two key areas they already are pursuing — the move to digital classrooms and the transition to the Common Core standards.

Lawmakers have required districts to have at least half their books and other instructional materials in digital form by 2015. Often, content is updated regularly and obtained more easily from publishers directly, Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg said. The need for an elaborate, state-led selection is becoming archaic, he suggested.

At the same time, he said, the state's move to new standards has been complicated by opponents with concerns about curriculum and instructional materials. Legg favors letting locals make curriculum decisions, as long as state standards are met.

State officials have taken steps to blunt criticism that Common Core represents a federal takeover of education. Their plans include amending the standards, rebranding Common Core as "Florida standards" and promoting legislation to protect student data.

Now that textbooks have been raised as an added concern, district leaders don't sound eager to take over the selection process.

"I don't think it's a good idea," Pinellas School Board chairwoman Carol Cook said of Hays' proposal. "I know there's a lot of concern with Common Core and whether we are going to have the ability to choose the curriculum. But we already have that flexibility."

Existing law allows districts to spend up to half their textbook funds off the state list.

Just last year, lawmakers gave districts the option of ignoring the state textbook adoption system in favor of a local one. None have done so.

"The problem that I see with it is, we're going to have all of the textbook companies and publishers going to each of the districts and taking a lot of time away from our staff, and putting a lot of pressure on them," Cook said.

That's especially problematic for smaller districts that do not have employees to dedicate to such an endeavor, said Escambia School Board member Patty Hightower, president of the Florida School Boards Association.

"The bill lends itself to local governance," she said. "But it has an unreal expectation of what can happen."

Hays called this a legitimate concern, and said the bill gives small districts "every opportunity" to join together to choose textbooks. He said they could collaborate on the reviews, then send recommendations to school boards for final consideration.

"Citizens would still have access to their local school board members," Hays said. "Concerned citizens, I feel, deserve to hold us accountable for how their money is being spent and how their students are being educated."

The idea of state textbook selection gets mixed reviews.

The Fordham Institute published a lengthy criticism of the process a decade ago, and chief executive Chester Finn Jr. said in an email that the problems cited back then haven't gone away.

Interest groups tend to control the process, which sanitizes many books, said the former Reagan administration education official. Publishers monopolize the system. And choices are restricted for districts that seek to be different.

"Instructional materials are key parts of the domain where we should rely on front-line educators to make the best decisions for their pupils," Finn wrote in 2004. "That means that textbook selection and purchasing decisions should be made as close as possible to the teacher, ideally by the teacher herself." He still stands by that position.

Textbook adoptions in other states also face criticism because of how they get politicized. In 2013, the Texas Board of Education filled its science textbook review panel with creationists, who aimed to add disclaimers on evolution.

That type of controversy has not dogged Florida, where the process has been viewed as fair. The state has convened committees to vet books against standards and recommend options to districts, which then do another review before making selections.

"There is going to be a greater capacity the more centralized the textbook adoption process is," said Morgan Polikoff, a University of Southern California assistant professor of K-12 policy. Districts "do the best they can, but it's a very difficult task to look at a bunch of textbooks and try to navigate all of those dimensions."

Some watchdogs worry that book battles like Volusia's could become more common if the process falls to the districts.

"If the responsibility shifts fully to individual school boards, how do we know if anything questionable makes it into the classroom?" Florida Citizens for Science wrote on its blog.

That potential also troubled FSBA president Hightower.

"I'm a little concerned about individuals in local districts trying to hijack the process," she said. "As we're moving toward higher standards, we want to make sure all our materials reflect that higher standard."

Lobbyists for Florida's school boards and superintendents said they did not ask for Hays' bill. They said the issue requires a public conversation.

Joy Frank, a lobbyist for the superintendents group, said she expressed her concerns to Hays and found him "very reasonable."

The bill has been assigned to two Senate committees. State Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, said he will file a companion bill in the House.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected]

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