Monday, August 15, 2005

A 'Fix' For Textbooks That Won't Fix a Thing

Wow, this commentary on the politics of textbooks in Texas is eye-opening. A need for public control over textbook purchases is demonstrably needed. -Angela

Monday, August 15, 2005

In another of the many ironies of the Texas Legislature, it now appears that after years of haggling, the only "reform" that the House could pass was one that purports to fix one of the few parts of school financing that wasn't broken.

And by "fixing" it, they actually broke it.

In all the wrangling over school equity in the courts, textbook funding was never an issue, because Texas had perfected a system that assured that sufficient instructional materials were delivered to all schoolchildren — whether they were in a rich district or a poor one — free of charge.

The state Board of Education oversaw investments of the state's Permanent School Fund, established more than a 150 years ago. The proceeds from those investments were enough to purchase books that were updated on an orderly basis.

As the reforms of the 1980s initiated statewide testing to measure schools' performance, the textbook system was poised to help: the Board of Education could take a statewide approach to make sure the instructional materials stayed up with statewide standards.

The first assault on this proven system came in 2003, when the new leaders in the Legislature raided the textbook fund to pay for other parts of the cash-strapped budget. As a result, more than $300 million in textbook purchases were delayed, starting a domino effect that fell into the lap of this year's Legislature.

Then, as lawmakers fumbled with the court-ordered reform, leaders in the House — particularly Public Education Committee Chairman Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington — decided to take advantage of the upheaval and dismantle the textbook system.

And when the House couldn't pass any other education reform or any meaningful property tax relief, its leadership tied its distorted vision for instructional materials to the funding for $295 million in books ordered by the Board of Education three years ago. The result is Grusendorf's House Bill 62, which, in a matter of hours this week, sailed through a hastily called rump committee meeting and a voice vote on the House floor.

Once again, it's a raid on the textbook fund, this time by big computer-makers who want to sell computers to schools.

HB 62 was based on a report from a blue-ribbon task force of computer manufacturers that Grusendorf convened . An Apple Computer executive wrote the report, and a host of the corporate giants signed an appeal to lawmakers — which Grusendorf endorsed — in support of HB62.

Among the bill's many problems:

•It dilutes statewide oversight of the textbook selection process. Publishers, not the state Board of Education or the Texas Education Agency, would be responsible for saying their works comply with state requirements, and the TEA would get only a few months to analyze the product.

•It diminishes educators' control. Instructional material contracts would be transferred to the state's Information-Technology arm, the Department of Information Resources, which may not have the same fire in its belly to get textbooks into classrooms as the Texas Education Agency.

•It disconnects the textbook selection from the budget process. Even though the Board of Education is required to approve books more quickly, there is no guarantee that money will be there to purchase the approved books.

•It's premature. The Texas Education Agency has been conducting a pilot program to study total immersion of campuses into electronic learning, but that report won't be delivered to the Legislature until 2007.

•It invites the very inequity that landed the state in the courts in the first place. With little guidance on how to spend the textbook-turned-technology money, some school districts might buy math books, others might buy PlayStations.

•It is unnecessary. The bill's most urgent portion — allowing school districts to order delayed textbooks — is being accomplished through the governor's executive order and a budget execution to be performed after the last gasp of the special session.

With sober reflection and a steady commitment to funding new technologies in the context of meaningful education reform, the Legislature could, someday, pass good laws to bring Texas instructional materials into the 21st century.

Unfortunately, the Texas House, bleary-eyed after months of failed leadership, chose instead to pass House Bill 62. Hopefully, the Senate won't repeat the mistake.

Avery is executive director of the Textbook Coordinators' Association of Texas.

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