When Gov. Rick Scott signed the state budget into law last week at the Villages retirement community, he virtually removed the concept of "public" from the process of adopting textbooks and other instructional materials for Florida's public schools.
Tucked away in SB 2120 is a Republican-sponsored measure that kills the decades-old method of using statewide committees of administrators, school board members, teachers and other Floridians to select textbooks. Despite what critics say, this process is democratic, bringing together diverse views and different levels of knowledge that enrich learning.
In addition to eliminating the lay committees, SB 2120 requires schools to adopt digital textbooks by the 2015-16 school year and spend 50 percent of their textbook budget on digital materials.
With the stroke of the governor's pen, Florida now has a Texas-style textbook adoption process. The commissioner of education, who is appointed by the governor, has been handed control of which textbooks and other materials will be used. The commissioner selects three state or national bureaucrats, called "subject matter experts," who will serve as the review committee. Two of the experts will review books, and the third will act as a tiebreaker. School districts then are free to appoint a district curriculum specialist or one classroom teacher to review some of the books and materials recommended by the experts.
Exactly what motivated GOP lawmakers to push for this drastic change? Department of Education officials argue that the bill will save Florida money by transferring responsibility for textbook reviews from a network of statewide committees, involving travel and hiring substitute teachers, to a three-person team. And although many committees had begun to meet online to save time and money, officials said the department is having difficulty finding enough volunteers for the labor-intensive task.
Several current and former volunteers from around the state told me they enjoyed the work because they met other volunteers and shared and ideas and experiences. They believe their contributions are important to the state's children.
"In my opinion there is no real need to change the adoption process," said April Griffin, a member of the Hillsborough County School Board and a former textbook adoption committee member. "The use of a more broad-based selection group that includes practitioners, specialists, school board members and community members has not resulted in the selection of poor-quality materials. I worry that this new legislation will take away checks and balances that keep the focus on student achievement, and it has the potential to allow political agendas to play a more active role in the process.
"I know the number of hours I personally dedicated to the process. I do not see how it is possible that a few people can accurately screen and select the materials given time limitations. I also do not know how it is possible that a few people can have absolute expertise in every course offered in the K-12 public school system."
Like many others who have served on adoption committees, Griffin also worries that the new centralized system will face the same problems that Texas faces, including perpetual charges of political corruption, publishers' favoritism and religious influence.
As a result of such problems, cultural battles stay in the headlines, all at a high cost to children's education. Which version of the human narrative should be in textbooks, creation or evolution? What about the history of black slavery and its significance? How far should textbooks go in discussing Islam and other non-Christian religions? Which books teach math the "acceptable" way? Which books teach reading "correctly"? Who should decide? Which publishers should profit?
These matters are so important that the process for deciding them should not be left to whims of three appointed, ideologically driven bureaucrats.
As for the mandate that Florida schools adopt digital textbooks by the 2015-16 school year, Griffin and many others who have served on textbook committees think the state has no choice but to embrace the future. Change is inevitable.
"The reality is that we should migrate to electronic instructional materials," Griffin said. "The technology and learning styles of today's students demand we go there."
Still, the concern is that while the centralization of the review and adoption process may enrich select publishers and their agents and perhaps even save the state money, public education in Florida may not improve significantly.
In an e-mail, Griffin aptly sums up what will be lost: "Centralization of decisionmaking … can be viewed as a step backward. The process of using a broader base of those participating in the adoption process has helped bolster credibility and support for the materials and the process."