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How are textbooks in Florida chosen? Florida Wonders explores.

As students head back to class, readers were curious to learn how course materials are selected.
Florida Wonders.
Florida Wonders.

Welcome back to Florida Wonders, a series where Tampa Bay Times journalists answer your questions.

We’ve been inviting readers to submit questions they want our reporters to research, using Hearken’s community engagement tool. Readers then voted on the question they wanted us to write about.

The inquiry that received the most votes came from reader Jennifer C. Jula. She wanted to know: How are textbooks in Florida chosen?

Who picks Florida textbooks and what does the process look like?

According to the Florida Department of Education, each district school board is responsible for K-12 classroom textbooks, materials in the school libraries and items on reading lists. “Instructional materials” also include learning laboratories, software and other electronic media.

The process of materials selection starts at the state level. The education commissioner picks three state or national experts by April 15 of each school year to review instructional materials and make sure they align with the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards.

State reviewers must have a master’s degree or higher, an educator certification, “substantial experience with evidence of content expertise and student achievement,” or have been recognized as an expert by receiving awards or having publications in the related fields, wrote Florida Department of Education spokesperson Cheryl Etters in an email.

Only two of the three state reviewers do an initial review for each of the recommend materials. The third reviewer acts as a tiebreaker if they disagree.

Each school district superintendent also nominates a classroom teacher or district-level content supervisor to perform an independent review of several state-recommended materials. The general public is also able to access materials online for two weeks to review materials that are submitted. Finally, the Commissioner of Education assesses the state and district reviewer evaluations, public feedback and cost of the material to approve or reject the list of recommended materials.

School districts can also implement their own instructional materials program. District programs must give the public a preview of the student edition of instructional materials at least 20 days before holding an open public meeting to discuss the item being considered.

“For materials not on the state adopted list, districts may use up to 50 percent of the instructional materials allocation to purchase materials ‘having intellectual content which assist in the instruction of subject or course,‘” Etters wrote.

How often are textbooks reviewed?

Materials are reviewed by subject on a five-year adoption cycle. During the 2019-2020 adoption year, reviewers focused on world languages, career and technical education and computer science. The 2020-2021 adoption year is dedicated to K-12 English language arts materials. The next three topics in the rotation are mathematics, social studies and science.

In August, Pinellas County Schools announced a new Curriculum Review Task Force to go over English language arts and social studies curriculum, said district spokesperson Isabel Mascareñas. The group will identify and remove areas in the curriculum that “communicate racist views” and recommend texts and lessons for anti-racist education. The district invited local and state organizations, including the African-American Heritage Association of Florida, Carter G. Woodson Museum and Florida Holocaust Museum, to participate.

How are disputes about textbook content handled?

Thanks to a controversial 2017 law passed by Gov. Rick Scott, any Florida resident can challenge the content of instructional materials. The Washington Post reported that some critics of this law say it could complicate the way evolution and climate change are taught.

The law allows parents of a public school student or residents of any Florida county to contest the choices they believe are “pornographic,” “not suited to student needs” or “inappropriate for the grade level.” To make a formal complaint, individuals must file a petition within 30 days of the school district adopting the materials.

What about private schools?

“The instructional materials statute for public K-12 schools does not address private schools,” Etters said. “Private schools are not required to follow state materials adoptions for public schools.”

What happens when Common Core is eliminated?

In February, the Florida Board of Education adopted the Benchmark for Excellent Student Thinking Standards as the replacement for Common Core. According to a proposed timeline, the new standards will be fully implemented in schools by the 2022-2023 school year. Instructional materials that meet the new English language arts standards are expected to enter Florida classrooms in the 2021-2022 school year, with new mathematics instructional materials to follow in the 2022-2023 school year.

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Information from the Times archives was used in this report.

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