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Texas Lawmakers Assail Weakened State Role on Textbooks

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The concept of local control, which got a ringing endorsement in a massive Texas education-reform law last year, doesn't look so good to some lawmakers now.

Twenty-one state representatives wrote a letter last month to the chairman of the state school board saying that when they voted for Senate Bill 1, they were not voting to weaken the board's authority to decide textbook content.

The law, however, has relegated the once-mighty state board to a mostly advisory role on textbooks. School districts now have the freedom to choose from a slate of approved titles chosen by the board.

Some observers say there is little hope that the May 15 letter from the lawmakers, most of the them conservatives who pushed the idea of decentralization a year ago, will do much good.

"When we voted for Senate Bill 1, we did not believe that our vote would, in any way, remove the state board of education's authority to establish and enforce textbook content requirements," says the letter, written on House of Representatives stationery.

But the system created by Senate Bill 1--a massive rewrite of the state education code--is an open market. The state board can decide which books make the approved list, but has no direct authority over what the books say or which ones districts buy.

The law requires the board to make sure books are error-free and aimed at essential curriculum elements. The board also can reject books if they do not meet certain physical characteristics like having durable covers and acceptable binding.

But the lawmakers who sent the letter--none of whom serves on the House public education committee--are peeved that the board must refrain from deciding whether books contain objectionable content.

The letter urges the board to take a stronger role without worrying about the consequences, promising, "We will stand behind you."

1,000 Decisions

The Texas school board has a long history as one of the most influential bodies in the world of textbook publishing.

When the board was in charge of adopting books, publishers that won multimillion-dollar contracts in the huge markets of Texas or California then marketed the same books to the rest of the country. The Texas board's dissatisfaction, on the other hand, could discomfit publishers and create huge financial troubles for them.

In 1994, the board ordered 300 changes in five newly adopted high school health textbooks after an outcry over their content. The board required publishers to rework the books to emphasize the importance of sexual abstinence over other birth-control options. (See Education Week, Feb. 23, 1994.)

Last year, the board sought changes in an environmental-science text published by Addison-Wesley Publishing Co. after the state's Republican agriculture commissioner complained that the book used "junk science" to paint farmers and ranchers as enemies of Mother Nature.

The letter writers said they believe it is a mistake to let go of such authority.

"Had the state board of education not had the authority over content they would not have been able to have the important debate over the content of high school health textbooks," the letter says. "Instead, our children would be calling toll-free homosexual hot lines and assigned to read Dr. [Jack] Kevorkian's books and write their own obituary."

Now, debate over the propriety and usefulness of individual textbooks will take place more than 1,000 times in the school districts across the Lone Star State. The sponsors of the 1995 reform law have said they are satisfied that local superintendents and school boards will make sound decisions.

Board Will Advise

For local officials, the reality of local textbook adoption "is still down the road a little bit," said Trish Conradt, the assistant director of governmental relations for the Texas Association of School Boards.

Because of the three-year turnaround from adoption to classroom use, the state board has already contracted for books that will be rolling into Texas schools through the fall of 1998. Ms. Conradt pointed out, however, that many local officials are leery of what will happen after that.

Supporters of the law acknowledge some of the concerns of the signatories to the May 15 letter, but stop short of calling for wholesale change.

Rep. Paul Sadler and Sen. Bill Ratliff, its House and Senate sponsors, have agreed with the state board's own clarification of its textbook-adoption role. At a meeting last month, the board amended its own operating rules, approving a resolution that allows the board to express an opinion about particular approved texts. That opinion will serve as guidance from Austin that local officials can decide whether to heed.

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