A battle is raging in Dallas over which social studies textbooks should be used in the district’s classrooms next year. But unlike most such disputes that have cropped up around the country, it is not parents, teachers, or historians who are challenging the school board’s decision. Instead, a publisher is fighting the board’s textbook-adoption process, which has omitted some of the company’s products from the list of approved instructional materials.
Harcourt Brace & Co. won a temporary injunction from a state court last month to postpone the district’s purchase of English-language social studies textbooks.
The Orlando, Fla.-based publisher filed a lawsuit after last month’s school board meeting, charging that the board violated district policy when it failed to follow the recommendations of its textbook committee, a board-appointed group of four administrators and 12 teachers. A court hearing on the matter was scheduled for this week.
“The rules of the game were set out at the beginning of the process for the textbook adoption, and under those rules, our texts were selected,” said Jim Harris, a lawyer with Thompson & Knight, a Dallas law firm representing Harcourt Brace. “At the end, the school board changed the rules,” Mr. Harris said. “We think there is something fundamentally wrong with that.”
Publishers are eager to gain thelucrative Texas market. The state has allocated $181 million for the new instructional materials; the 140,000-student Dallas district will spend $6.2 million.
A majority of board members were dissatisfied with the committee’s list of recommended texts, all of which are published by Harcourt Brace. They twice asked the committee to make further recommendations. When the committee continued to stand by its original recommendations, the board voted 4-3 on an alternative list--one dominated by the Harcourt Brace texts, but which also included those of three other publishers.
“We felt some of the other materials were more challenging than Harcourt Brace’s,” said Yvonne Ewell, a longtime board member.
Ms. Ewell, who is African-American, also cited an insufficient multicultural focus in the texts. The board has a long history of racial division, and it was its minority members who voted to break from the committee’s recommendations. Moreover, she said that the textbook committee had not evaluated thoroughly all the texts in order for the board to make an informed decision.
Yet, the district’s multicultural coordinator had, indeed, found that the texts met the district’s standards. In addition, the board had earlier followed the committee’s recommendations in approving the Harcourt Brace Spanish-language social studies texts for all grades.
Ms. Ewell said that if anyone violated the policy, it was the textbook committee, which she says refused to recommend additional offerings as the board requested.
In the lawsuit, Harcourt Brace claims that the board cannot change its policy until a public hearing is held and a vote is taken.
Board member Lynda McDow said the break from policy surprised her."I think it was one of the strangest things I’ve seen in the three years since I’ve been on the board,” said Ms. McDow, who voted against the alternate list. “I asked, ‘Is this making new policy as you go?’” she said. “I’m still somewhat confused. We are so policy driven, yet this vote was very different from any I’d seen before.”
Also in question is whether Ms. Ewell should have voted at all after disclosing that the wife of her campaign manager is a representative of Macmillan/McGraw-Hill publishers, one of those added to the alternate list and a popular selection among districts throughout the state.
And another member, who could have swayed the vote in favor of the committee’s original list, was not permitted by state statute to vote after participating in the meeting by telephone.
Those factors could have changed the outcome, Mr. Harris argued."The outcome was dependent upon two votes, one which should not have been cast and another that should have been cast,” he said. “It could have been 4 to 3 to adopt the board’s recommendation.”