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Ga. Proposal Would Ease State Textbook Control

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The rejection of a controversial series of mathematics textbooks has prompted some Georgia policymakers to re-examine the statewide adoption of classroom materials.

Although the issue is framed largely in terms of local versus state control, the flap has also encompassed the broader issues of national standards and the potential for censorship.

Rep. Charles C. Smith Jr., a Democrat, has introduced legislation that would give local districts more control over the selection of texts.

At the same time, the state's newly installed superintendent of public instruction, Linda Schrenko, a Republican who campaigned on a local-control platform, has advocated discarding the book-review process altogether.

Their intervention into a process that dates back to 1937, as well as complaints from local educators, has also spurred the state school board to reconsider its policy at a retreat scheduled for next month.

"There may be a better way of doing this; I don't know what it is," said C. Lewis Shurbutt, the vice chairman of the board and a staunch supporter of the state-adoption policy.

Dictating 'How'

Georgia is one of 22 states that have some form of state textbook-adoption system, and it is also one of several states considering revising the procedure. In Georgia, the policy determines which books districts can buy with state money.

The emerging emphasis on local district control and site-based management "is causing some legislators to examine the issue," said Roger A. Rogalin, the vice president of the school division of the Association of American Publishers.

One of those states is Texas, where Sen. Bill Ratliff, the chairman of the Senate education committee, is drafting legislation that would allow districts to choose their own textbooks.

The bill he is writing supports the philosophy that the state's role is to set standards outlining what students should know, leaving to the districts to decide how to help students meet those standards.

"We ought to leave them alone to determine how they go about it," Senator Ratliff said. "Dictating a textbook is an ultimate 'how.'"

In Georgia, a 25-member advisory committee--made up of teachers, subject-area experts, and lay members from across the state--reviews books and makes recommendations to the state board. The board then votes on whether to accept those recommendations.

Districts that want to buy materials omitted from the list may do so at their own expense.

Rather than abolish the state-adoption process, Representative Smith's bill offers an alternative to it. A book or series of books would be added to the list of approved texts if at least five of the 181 districts in the state petitioned for its acceptance.

Saxon Rejected

He decided to seek revisions in the policy last fall after learning that the state's textbook advisory committee had rejected a series of mathematics textbooks published by Oklahoma-based Saxon Publishers.

In lopsided votes, the committee passed over the books on the grounds that they did not meet curriculum guidelines, which closely parallel national standards developed in the late 1980's by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Opponents of the no-frills Saxon materials argue that they focus too much on drills and rote memorization rather than on the higher-level problem-solving skills embodied in the N.C.T.M. standards.

The publisher of the materials, John H. Saxon, appealed the Georgia decision, but the state board last month reaffirmed its judgment. Mr. Saxon, a retired military officer who has been embroiled in a lengthy feud with the N.C.T.M., contends that the material contained in most math textbooks is untested.

Moreover, he argues that the development of national academic standards--voluntary though they are--can engender censorship in states with statewide adoption if publishers pattern their textbooks on those standards.

"It is, in effect, a censorship issue," Mr. Saxon said. "They are crowding out alternatives."

Representative Smith agreed, saying that standards-based textbooks can dictate curriculum. "The standards that some group has dictated may be destined to be part of the curriculum in every county even though no state education department has adopted the criteria," he said.

Beyond Math

Despite the expense to local taxpayers, several Georgia districts are using the Saxon texts and claiming success.

When the Screven County school system adopted them in 1988, both student test scores and interest in math were at rock bottom, said Agatha C. Kent, the district's director of curriculum and staff development.

Since then, she said, standardized-test scores have skyrocketed, as has enrollment in upper-level math courses. "It's probably one of the most positive things our school district does," Ms. Kent, a former math teacher, added.

She emphasized, however, that the issue looms larger than the math program. Though taxpayers in rural Screven County have footed the bill for the Saxon texts and a whole-language reading program, Ms. Kent said many districts are unwilling to spend local tax dollars. Consequently, they do not look beyond the state list.

"There is nothing magical about that state-adopted list except you can use state money," she said.

State board members, however, believe theirs is a sound system.

"We need to preserve the system we have because of its integrity," said Mr. Shurbutt, pointing to the expert and geographically diverse teachers and the community members on the panel.

Nevertheless, the board has agreed to examine the issue. It has asked state education officials to survey other states and has asked for local officials' input.

The board's chairman, Richard C. Owens, said it wants to ask districts such questions about choosing textbooks as: "Would they prefer to do it strictly locally? Are they totally aware of what is involved--the expense, the time?"

Mr. Owens supports the system, but acknowledges that times have changed. "It's kind of a different ball game than when the selection process was put together years ago."

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