Tweak, don't scrap, FL textbook selection process

Bad Senate bill pushes task and cost onto districts

April 16, 2014 

The Florida Legislature. FILE PHOTO / MIAMI HERALD PHOTO.

School vouchers aren't the only controversial education issue being tackled by the Florida Legislature this year. Another measure, which narrowly passed the Senate on Friday, could overhaul how all public school textbooks are chosen -- and not for the better.

The way it works now, districts and the state share the approval process. The Florida Department of Education selects a range of classroom materials that meet its standards, and local school districts choose from them.

It's not a perfect system, and some parents have complained that they have little say in the selection. Still, the current process doesn't need to be scrapped -- just tweaked.

If adopted by the House, the proposal forces the state's 67 school districts, and not state education officials, to review and approve those textbooks.

In essence, the bill would eliminate the state's role altogether and mandate that districts take over the process. Although, under current law, districts can select textbooks, it's telling that not one of them has chosen to handle the task alone.

A handful of Senate Republicans and most Democrats in the Senate expressed hesitation about the far-reaching effects of the legislation, and we share that concern. Every member of the Miami-Dade delegation voted against the bill -- and they were right to do so. (Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, voted for the measure.)

Smaller counties have already gone on the record opposing the bill. The Florida School Board Association (joined by the Manatee County board) and the Florida Parent Teacher Association have also rejected this can of worms.

In this one case, local control isn't necessarily a good thing.

SB 864, which passed by a 21-19 vote, is misguided -- not to mention yet another unfunded mandate from Tallahassee that will further overwhelm local school districts.

Why SB 864 should be axed

Here's why it's a bad idea:

First, the measure would introduce a lack of consistency in the textbooks children in grades K-12 are using to learn across Florida. What a fourth-grader learned in Hillsborough County could be vastly different from what a fourth-grader learned in Manatee.

Second, it would likely place ideological battles over flashpoint religious or political issues at each district's doorstep. The bill says it would give parents and others in the community more of a say, but that's a double-edged sword.

Disputes over content in some textbooks could allow social and political bias to seep in.

The very birth of the bill is a case in point: It was sponsored by Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, and partially inspired by a controversy in Volusia County over a world history textbook that included a chapter titled "Muslim Civilizations." Some felt it portrayed Islam too favorably.

Hays said the legislation is needed so that school board members will be accountable to parents and voters. Now those complaints will be directed to each district.

Finally, the district approval process would add a layer of expensive bureaucracy. The state now trains committees of teachers to do the selecting.

Many educators want the Department of Education to retain most of the power of choosing textbook materials -- and just add more local voices.

A House bill, HB 921, already offers that happy medium. It does not eliminate the state's review of textbooks, and instead allows districts to choose their own textbooks -- if they want to.

House lawmakers should reject SB 864 and let the state continue to pick textbooks. Otherwise, we stand to see chapter after sorry chapter of conflict played out across the state.

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