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Texas Debates 'Open Market' For Textbooks

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Texas lawmakers are pondering the consequences of doing away with the age-old custom of having a committee pick which textbooks schools can buy with state money. But while the debate raging in Austin most directly concerns the 1,100 Texas school districts, abandoning the practice would likely be felt from Philadelphia to Phoenix.

With its massive market and rigid specifications, Texas has long influenced the content of textbooks sold nationwide because publishers cannot afford to ignore it.

Some experts believe that if the state allows its districts to choose their own books, quality will improve throughout the industry; others suggest the opposite. And some observers say that because Texas has been so influential for so long, they can only speculate what might happen.

In the short term, the market faces "a considerable amount of disorder, confusion, and increased costs," predicted Gilbert T. Sewall, the director of the American Textbook Council, an independent textbook-monitoring group in New York City.

The proposal to make Texas an open-market state for textbook sales, part of an omnibus education-reform package that Sen. Bill Ratliff introduced last month, is still up in the air. The Senate education committee, which Mr. Ratliff chairs, was expected to vote on the package late last week, with the full Senate to begin debate as early as this week. (See Education Week, March 1, 1995.)

Meanwhile, the House education committee intends to tackle the textbook-adoption issue the first week in April.

Senator Ratliff's bill would allow districts to choose their own instructional materials, including computers and software, and to buy them with a state allotment.

Under the current system, the state only pays for texts and other instructional materials on a state-approved list compiled by review committees and approved by the state school board.

Districts are free to buy materials of their own choosing with revenue from local taxes, but most say they cannot afford to do so. They may also seek exceptions, but unlike the waiver-granting procedures in other states, Texas requires districts to undergo a rigorous justification process.

'Most Powerful State'

If the legislation passes, Texas would become the second state this school year to discard the state-adoption process.

The Georgia state board revised its regulations last month, allowing districts to buy books that are not on the state list.

But Georgia does not have the clout that Texas has.

"Texas," said Mr. Sewall, "is the most powerful state in determining textbook content."

The textbook publishing industry generally considers Texas the most onerous state in which to do business, and in recent years the number of submissions has waned.

But the amount of money the state spends on instructional materials makes it virtually impossible to overlook. The legislature appropriated nearly $300 million for textbooks during 1994 and 1995.

Because of that influence, publishers use the stringent specifications Texas imposes on the industry as a blueprint for books they develop and sell nationwide, experts say. Mr. Sewall said the nation's leading American-history textbooks are chiefly those that Texas adopted in 1991.

That means, for example, that teachers in Peoria, Ill., may now be using textbooks written to the specifications of Texas educators and policymakers.

Freeing Publishers

Harriet Tyson, a senior associate at the Washington-based Council for Basic Education who studies the textbook market, believes a change in Texas has the potential to improve texts.

Publishers, she said, would have a freer hand. "Right now, they only care about surviving the check lists of these big adoption-state committees."

Moreover, Ms. Tyson anticipates that a change might generate a broader range of materials. She said the Texas list tends to include books for advanced students and for slower-learning students, with little in between. Districts often will choose the less-challenging materials to meet their general needs, she said.

But Caroline B. Cody, an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of New Orleans, said quality could suffer without state review.

"It is a tremendous job, so you take short cuts," Ms. Cody said. "You deal with people you know, you deal with products you know, you deal with teacher preferences based on a quick review."

"As a result, publishers can short-cut quality issues if they desire," she added. "What's really awful is that kind of review may not turn up the really wonderful books."

Mr. Sewall doubts that a change in Texas would automatically bring improved products.

"My first thought is the cost of marketing for publishers will go up," he said. "They will not be able to promote their product as a book with the Texas seal of approval on it. Their sales reps will be involved in more intensive competition."

The increased costs, he said, would more than likely be passed on to schools.

What happens if Texas drops statewide adoption, of course, depends in large measure on what publishers might then use to determine content nationally.

Some might tailor their products to the 22 other adoption states, such as North Carolina, South Carolina, and--for elementary and middle school texts--California. The publishers themselves have warned Texas lawmakers that if they do not take an evenhanded approach in the legislation, they could find their students reading texts based on other states' guidelines or having no texts at all.

In a booklet prepared for the state Senate last month, Joe Bill Watkins, the Texas lobbyist for the Association of American Publishers, recommended that the state require that districts buy their textbooks for a given subject at the same time.

Otherwise, he wrote, publishers might base their history texts, for example, on criteria from another statewide-adoption state. "Then if that history textbook meets Texas' curriculum, it will be offered, but if it doesn't, it will not make economic sense to the publisher to redo it to meet the Texas curriculum."

Another alternative for publishers would be to model their textbooks on the national content-standards documents that have been produced for a number of academic subjects. Many newer mathematics texts, for instance, were designed to reflect the standards published in 1989 by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Texts are also reportedly in the works based on the civics and history standards issued last fall.

No Consensus

Meanwhile, it is no sure thing that the Texas system will change, given the split on the issue among both lawmakers and educators.

Edward F. Tobia, the director of elementary curriculum and instruction for the San Antonio schools, supports the change.

In his view, no longer would the district have to go through the waiver process to meet the distinct needs of some of its schools. Mr. Tobia said the 60,000-student district's own adoption system would not change much, although it would have more flexibility.

District officials elsewhere prefer the current system. "For us to have to review every textbook would be a time-consuming effort that would be horrendous," said Mike Clifton, the superintendent of the 2,900-student Cleveland schools.

Mr. Clifton said the change would cost his district because he would have to hire a full-time reviewer.

The state board is also inclined to keep the system intact, although it is that very body that worries some educators.

Earlier this year, the board, citing what it saw as an anti-agricultural bias, rejected the one high school environmental-science text that the review committee recommended, according to one local school official. The book is being re-evaluated.

"In the meantime," said the official, "we have an environmental-science book that is really out of date."

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