More States Favor Public Comment During Text Adoption
Choosing textbooks for schools on a statewide basis may never be a controversy-free process, but in some of the 22 states that are doing so, officials find that formal procedures for public comment help insure that all opinions are taken into account before decisions are made--or, on occasion, revised.
This year, Alabama and Louisiana join the growing number of states that have developed a formal system for soliciting public comment before the state textbook board makes a final decision.
New Procedure Adopted
In Alabama, the new procedure was adopted last spring by the State Board of Education. The board enacted the measure, officials say, "to allow Alabamans to respond to the proposed adoption of textbooks to be used in the public schools." Texts under consideration will be displayed at 16 libraries around the state.
The Alabama State Textbook Committee conducted its first public hearing on Sept. 29. Subject areas for which new titles are being adopted this year include English grammar, composition, speech, spelling, handwriting, and art education.
Louisiana's public-comment procedure comes from a bill recently signed into law by Governor David C. Treen.
The new law requires that textbooks being considered for state adoption be placed in public libraries in eight cities throughout the state by Jan. 1. From then until June 30, any interested citizen may inspect the books and request that he or she be placed on a mailing list to receive textbook-adoption information.
The Louisiana law also requires that one-third of the members of textbook-adoption committees be parents who are not public-school educators. Committee meetings are open to the public; citizens attending the meetings may speak against a text or file their objections in writing.
"This new system will permit a large number of citizens, including those with many different philosophies, experiences, and perspectives, to read and review proposed textbooks," Governor Treen said. "It is my hope that both the press and the general public will become much more aware of the textbook-adoption process, the contents of the textbooks, and what is actually being taught in our public schools."
The idea of soliciting public comment before textbooks enter the classroom is not new--Texas and California have had formal procedures for years--but it is one that textbook publishers hope will catch on in other states.
"It's so important that there be definite procedures," said Donald Eklund, vice president of the Association of American Publishers' (aap) school division. "There are groups all over the country with a particular case they want to make. We know that this happens, and it's fine, it's the American way. What publishers want is a definite format."
For publishers as well as educators, Mr. Eklund said, "It is of concern when something comes out of the blue and there's no procedure to follow."
J. Henry Perry, the director of the textbook division of the Texas Education Agency, agrees that the public-comment procedure is a good thing. "It gives any citizen of the state an opportunity to express his opinion. Whatever the outcome is, we know it's been a fair process."
Of the states that adopt textbooks statewide, according to Mr. Eklund, Texas has the most highly structured procedure for public comment.
Publishers file samples of texts under consideration at each of 20 regional education centers, and citizens with objections to them must file a "bill of particulars"--in triplicate--with the state textbook division. The objections are forwarded to the publishers, who deliver written responses, also in triplicate.
The "bill of particulars," Mr. Perry said, must outline very specific objections, cited by page number, paragraph, and line. The state education agency sets up a schedule for hearings on the objections, usually lasting at least one week.
During the hearings, both petitioner and publisher are alloted specific time periods; petitioners, in addition, get a second time period that must not exceed half the time used by the publisher. The textbook committee reviews the comments from both sides and makes recommendations to the state education commission.
Later in the year, the State Board of Education makes a final decision on which texts are adopted, but not until a second hearing has been held, during which participants may do no more than repeat objections already raised about materials still on the list.
Do Texans regard this as a good procedure? Mr. Perry said that they do. The program has been evolving for nearly 19 years, he explained. "It's been tried, and it's bound to be true."
California also has a long-standing procedure for soliciting public comment, and officials there find that the citizens' comments do have an effect.
After being recommended by the state education office, materials are sent to 30 public display centers, where citizens may fill out a form giving their opinions.
Public volunteers first review materials to make sure they comply with legal requirements; then the books undergo a "content review" and are scrutinized by state officials and citizens.
Public response varies widely, depending on the subject area in which materials are to be adopted that year, according to Francie Alexander, an administrative consultant with the state education department.
Science More Controversial
Several years ago, when mathematics texts were up for adoption, few people responded, and many of those who did were school-district officials or publishers' representatives. Science has been more controversial, Ms. Alexander said, since there is active public concern about such topics as the definition of life, evolution, and creationism.
It does not take a large group of citizens to affect which materials are adopted by the state, according to Ms. Alexander.
One year, she said, when California's English curriculum was under consideration, only one citizen went to the board. That citizen, however, was a retired English teacher who was concerned because she felt the English books being considered were too simply written for the grades in which they were to be used.
Her comments caused the board to remove two of the books and influenced it to initiate a special adoption procedure for English materials aimed at students who are achieving at or above their grade level. Ms. Alexander agrees that the public-comment procedure is valuable and may ward off complaints later. "We have a way to get people to discuss their concern," she said. "They get a response even if there isn't agreement."
Some states--West Virginia, for example--have no state law requiring public comment, but do have local requirements for public display of materials under consideration.
South Carolina also relies on local comments."That would be the logical place for the public to get involved," said Edgar B. Jackson, director of the state's Office of Textbooks.
State law also requires that three-fourths of the members of the textbook committee for each subject area be classroom teachers. One non-educator is included on each committee.
Mr. Jackson said that he was not sure how much the average citizen would contribute to the procedure. "I wouldn't be opposed to it," he said."I don't know if I'd advocate it, either."
He could recall, he said, only two complaints about textbooks in the last 25 years. Both complaints were related to what the complainants argued was an inappropriate amount of profanity in English literature texts.