Textbook selection for public school students should remain in the hands of the state Department of Education, and a recent study that examined fourth-grade math textbooks used by Tampa Bay students underscores the reasons why. Despite assurances from publishers, the textbooks don't match the new curriculum that is being adopted around the state. It turns out that even state education officials who are trained to review and select textbooks can miss the mark, and legislation that would allow individual school districts to choose textbooks would be an expensive gamble.
The legislation, SB 864, would give school districts full control over the textbook selection process, end automatic reviews of previously selected books and eliminate the requirement that districts buy books through state depositories. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, comes after a 2013 dustup in Volusia County in which some residents complained that students were being taught from a pro-Islamic textbook. To its credit, the Volusia County School Board kept the textbook, which had been vetted and presented a balanced account of world history.
This legislation, which has passed two Senate committees and is ready for consideration by the full chamber, sanctions the local hijacking of the book selection process. If districts are required to choose their own books, instructional materials could vary from county to county depending on which interest group or individual voice cries loudest. That could put objective teaching and learning at stake and put Florida students at a disadvantage.
Lawmakers also should consider the cost. The state has a procedure and team in place to handle book evaluations. At the local level, educators are already overburdened with teaching responsibilities, implementing a new curriculum and trying to prepare students for a new testing system. School superintendents and school board members have said they do not want this additional responsibility, and current law already allows them to choose several books from the state's list of approved books and gives them the right to spend up to half the district's money on books not on the list. A 2013 law gives school districts the right to create their own textbook selection process, and none of them have taken on the job.
This is one instance where the status quo is fine. Lawmakers should embrace it rather than trying to provide a solution to a problem that doesn't exist.