One battle over one textbook in one county does not a crisis make. Yet in Tallahassee, conservative Republican lawmakers are ready to dismantle the state's thoughtful textbook selection process at the behest of unsuccessful culture warriors. They are risking both intellectual and financial corruption that would only further politicize public schools.
Like so many bad ideas in Tallahassee, this one began when a special interest failed to get its way. Conservative critics tried to persuade the Volusia County School Board last year to stop using a new edition of a 10th-grade world history textbook that was on the state's approved textbook list and that it had used for six years. They claimed the new edition's chapter dedicated to the history of Islam had a pro-Islam slant — apparently refusing to appreciate that Christianity and Judaism were infused throughout the rest of the book. The School Board stood for intellectual integrity and refused to cave.
Now Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, has filed legislation to eliminate the state's role in textbook selection, saying that task should be left up to each county school board. As a House member six years ago, Hays pushed efforts to expand Florida's science standards to include teachings other than evolution when it came to humanity's origins. Now he may be able to exploit the unease with the state's changing standards for public schools. The state's shift to Common Core State Standards and digital publishing has other legislators questioning if the state process for selecting textbooks still makes sense.
What the Legislature must not forget is its job to ensure that the tax dollars Floridians send to Tallahassee for education are well spent — not just lining the pockets of publishers that play to a certain ideology or may be able to more easily curry favor in local districts. The state's textbook selection system already provides flexibility for districts and a welcome service of vetting textbooks and obtaining lower prices.
A panel of subject experts and classroom teachers from across the state vet each set of books and make individual recommendations on which textbooks are suitable. No reviewer may receive anything of value from publishers during the selection process, and the decision on final inclusion on the state's list falls to the state education commissioner.
But districts still have options now. The state's approved list never offers just one textbook, and school boards can spend up to half their money on materials not on the approved list. It's instructive that a new law last year gave school districts the right to opt out of the state's textbook selection process as long as they set up their own, but none of the 67 districts chose to do so.
The state process ensures decisions aren't made in a vacuum and yet meet the academic rigor and accountability taxpayers expect when their dollars are spent. The Volusia County School Board obviously understood that keeping 10th-graders ignorant or prejudiced against a major religion is no way to teach world history. Lawmakers should think twice before chucking a system designed to ensure both intellectual and fiscal integrity.