Education board grapples with loss of power over textbooks

The State Board of Education, long the gatekeeper to the enormous textbook market in Texas, has lost control over which materials enter public school classrooms.

Lawmakers last year passed legislation that untethered the $792 million available for school districts to buy instructional materials from the board’s approval of those materials.

Textbook publishers “don’t have to go to the State Board to get their license to sell any longer,” said lobbyist David Anderson, who represents a major textbook company. “The money is controlled by the schools.”

The policy objective of Senate Bill 6 was to give school districts more flexibility to spend limited dollars on an evolving list of tools, such as e-readers, that can be used to disseminate the required lessons.

But the political effect was to strip the board of its veto power.

“It’s pretty clear that it reduces our authority in the sense that we’re not the only game in town,” board member Michael Soto, D-San Antonio, said in an interview.

“School districts have additional options to choose from, and publishers are going to have to think very carefully about whether it’s worth their time and money and go through the board process.”

The board is set to vote today on final changes to the textbook approval process in response to the new law. The board members are trying to strike a delicate balance between providing enough oversight to ensure quality materials without making it so burdensome that publishers balk.

“If the State Board is not ready to adapt along with that, the publishers are going to go around it,” Soto said.

Previously, school districts could use state dollars only to pay for textbooks that the board had determined were compliant with state curriculum standards.

The State Board of Education and the Texas Education Agency managed a highly regulated market.

Board approval was essential for textbook publishers to gain access to the lucrative market.

Accordingly, some board members wielded their red editing pencils with gusto. At times, they called for changes to the textbooks so the content reflected certain ideological views.

In 2001, for example, some Republican board members found that two environmental science textbooks were not skeptical enough of the causes of global warming.

One publisher made the changes in the textbook that the board members demanded while another did not.

The latter’s textbook was not approved.

The 2011 legislation allows school districts to use the state dollars to pay for whatever they need to access and disseminate the required lessons.

A survey of Texas school district textbook coordinators released on Thursday found that more than 70 percent of the respondents indicated that they used or expected to use some of their instructional materials money on software and technological equipment, including tablet computers.

Some board members are dismayed by the policy change, saying it eliminates critical oversight to ensure the state’s standards are being addressed in the materials.

Board member Pat Hardy, R-Weatherford, said she expected the major publishers would still go through the board’s review process but smaller vendors might take advantage of the lack of oversight by selling directly to school districts.

Board members still retain full authority to write the curriculum standards that serve as the basis for what students must learn. But there is limited assurance that the materials that make it into the classroom will meet those standards.

“I don’t like the fact that people can circumvent the system,” Hardy said.

Contact Kate Alexander
 at 445-3618