Panels in Ga., N.C. Reject Controversial Textbooks

By Debra Viadero — October 10, 1990 6 min read

The state textbook advisory committees in Georgia and North Carolina have recommended against the adoption of a widely used reading-textbook series that has been the target of attacks by parents and conservative religious groups across the country.

The actions by the committees last month represent a significant setback for Impressions, a four-year-old elementary-reading series published by Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

The books, anthologies of classic children’s literature and folktales, have come under increasing fire since 1989 from parents who contend the literary selections are overwhelmingly “morbid,” violent, and laced with references to the occult.

First State Rejections

Georgia and North Carolina are the first states in which textbook advisory committees have rejected the books as part of the textbook-adoption process. The panels’ actions virtually assure that the books will not be used in most schools in the two states.

The state school board in North Carolina formally adopted its advisory panel’s recommendation last week.

The Georgia state board, which generally follows such advice from its textbook panel, is scheduled to act next month.

Most attempts around the country to remove the books from schools already using them have been unsuccessful, according to the publisher.

But a number of observers predict that debate over Impressions and similar series will intensify as more and more schools move to scrap their traditional basal readers in favor of an approach that seeks to inspire children to read by using “real literature” in elementary classes. (See Education Week, Feb. 21, 1990.)

“If what you’re giving kids is real literature that might expose them to potentially controversial topics in contrast to the pabulum of ‘See Spot run,’ then this is going to turn into a much bigger controversy,” said Donna Fowler, issues director for People for the American Way, a civil-liberties lobby that tracks book-banning attempts in schools.

Complaints in Georgia

The rejection of the books in Georgia followed a flurry of sudden protests from parents there over the content of the series.

State officials said the controversy erupted about two weeks ago concerns about the books elsewhere in the country were chronicled in an Atlanta newspaper and in the Citizen, a publication issued by Focus on Family, a California-based organization.

“Each one of us [on the textbook advisory committee] had a site this summer where people could come and review the books, and many of us had no one show up at our evaluation sites,” said Karen Hamilton, a member of the panel. “This whole thing came out of left field.”

In the final days leading up to the advisory committee’s Sept. 26 vote, however, the state department of education received nearly 200 calls from individuals opposing the books, according to Jerold Pace, textbook administrator for the department.

While some parents complained that the selections in the 15 books were replete with Satanic references, officials said, the vast majority of the comments received centered on what the critics said was the violence and overall depressing nature of the material and the abundance of selections that dealt with fantasy.

“The issue is a pervasive negativeness and a pervasive weirdness that just doesn’t need to be there,” said Karen LaBarr, a parent who testified during hearings before the committee.

“If there are parents who have got hesitations about the books,” she added, “they don’t need to have counties put thousands of dollars into the materials if they can recommend better ones.”

Not ‘Up to Snuff’

Despite such complaints, Georgia education officials and textbook tee members said the final 13-to-8 vote not to recommend the books was based on educational concerns, not on the content of the series.

They said the series did not meet the state’s educational objectives specifying what skills students should be learning at particular grade levels.

In addition, according to Mr. Pace, committee members said the materials were not balanced, because they featured an abundance of fantasy literature.

“There were some people who individually felt the content was inappropriate,” Ms. Hamilton said. “But when discussion opened on Impressions, it became very clear to many people that the series simply did not meet our objectives.”

The 21 panelists did recommend several other literature-based reading series for elementary students, including one composed entirely of children’s trade books. Over all, the advisory panel recommended 17 of the 21 series up for adoption.

Acceptance by the state board of the panel’s recommendation on the Impressions series would not prohibit Georgia school districts from using the books, but would forbid their purchase with state funds.

Quality Is Issue

In North Carolina, as in Georgia, state officials insisted that quality, not politics, was the deciding issue in the textbook committee’s thumbs-down.

Based on the state’s criteria for language, organization, and content, the series “just didn’t come up to snuff,” Jane Knox, the committee’s vice chairman, said last week.

Unlike in Georgia, Impressions did not come before the North Carolina review committee under local fire, according to Ms. Knox. The one letter of protest received by the reviewers came during their deliberations, she said, and “by then, the die had already been cast.”

Sarah Stewart, president of the North Carolina Federation of Teachers, added that if there had been widespread concern or discussion about the series, it would have come to her attention.

Following the committee’s recommendations, the state board did approve eight other literature-based reading series, according to Ann Fowler, the department of instruction’s textbook consultant.

North Carolina allows schools to purchase unapproved textbooks with state funds, provided they get a waiver from the state board, Ms. Fowler said.

‘Cause’ for Groups

The publisher of the Impressions books, meanwhile, sees the influence of conservative groups behind much of the controversy over the series nationwide.

“It’s clear that some groups are beginning to take this on as a cause, and I think it’s generating a lot of activity that wasn’t there before,” said Anson Franklin, vice president of corporate communications for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc., which owns Holt.

In addition to Focus on Family, other groups opposing the series have included Christians for Educational Excellence, the National Association of Christian Educators, and the Western Center for Law and Religious Freedom, according to Mr. Franklin.

“We think it’s a good series and we plan to defend it wherever it is challenged,” he said.

The books, which feature selections by Lewis Carroll, A.A. Milne, Laura Ingalls Wilder, C.S. Lewis, and other well-known authors, are being used by 150 school districts and 500 other individual schools in 34 states, according to the publisher.

Since 1989, there reportedly have been 23 attempts to ban the books in schools where they were already in use. Only a handful of those attempts have been successful, according to People for the American Way.

In Yucaiba, Calif., parents opposing the series have launched a campaign to recall two local school-board members who voted to keep the books in school. That election will take place Nov. 6.

The local superintendent there contends the series has helped inspire children to read.

“Kids are checking out and reading many more books than they had a few years ago,” said Ronald Bennett, superintendent of schools for the Yucaiba Joint Unified School District. “What more could you want from a reading series?”

Staff Writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.

A version of this article appeared in the October 10, 1990 edition of Education Week as Panels in Ga., N.C. Reject Controversial Textbooks