After two days of hearings on Tennessee’s public school textbook selection process, majority-party Senate Republicans are indicating they’ll push for developing new review-and-approval procedures, and perhaps throw the current system out altogether.
Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham told reporters after the close of the meeting she “sensed a real doubt” among fellow Republicans that “the Textbook Commission as it is structured now is fixable.”
“I think that what will happen now is that we will look at some of what these other states are doing and take the best practices and see if we can reconstitute our state textbook commission so that it works better,” said Gresham.
The hearings, held jointly by the Senate Education and Government Oversight committees, consisted of testimony from state Department of Education officials and Textbook Selection Commission members.
The lawmakers also listened to a number of conservative activists who said many state-approved education materials contain an assortment of passages that are ideologically biased, erroneous or in other ways objectionable and unsuited for Tennessee public school classrooms. The complaints focused on what those testified said they perceived to be unflattering depictions of capitalism and Christianity, omissions of key facts and outright inaccuracies in many of the social studies and history textbooks used to instruct high-school aged kids in Tennessee.
Hal Rounds, a Fayette County attorney and self-described libertarian, took issue, for example, with how recently approved textbooks in government-run schools are representing early American history and basic tenets of the United States Constitution. “The point is that the textbook selection process is supposed to provide us with tools that we can give our kids, that tell them what the world was really like. And it is not doing that,” said Rounds.
Claudia Henneberry, a retired teacher and activist with the Tea Party-affiliated 9.12 Project, said she spent several weeks researching state textbooks and found numerous instances of “racial bias” in which whites were cast in a negative light or are portrayed as oppressive intruders into North America. She also complained that most social studies and history texts in public schools generally tend to exhibit a liberal or pro-Democrat political slant.
On economic matters, Henneberry said “capitalism is portrayed as unfair in these books, most of them, and that wealthy is greedy, whereas socialism and other states of socialism are shown as preferable.”
Others who spoke leveled similar criticisms. Some also said that when they raised concerns with local school officials they were often either ignored or told the state has ultimate decision-making authority over the books schools use.
As the meeting came to a close, Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell said that after listening to all the protests from the conservatives who spoke he’s inclined to scrap the current process and “start all over.”
Bell said he’d favor Tennessee borrowing from what other states are doing and at the same time ensure the public has more input in the process. The states that are doing the best with how they select textbooks offer “more parental input, more local input, more transparency,” said the Republican from Riceville. Virginia, Utah and Louisiana have models worth looking into, he said.
Additionally, Bell said that he would like the General Assembly to have some decision-making ability over the membership of the commission. Currently, state textbook commissioners are appointed solely by the governor for a term of three years.
Gresham said addressing the issues raised by critics warrants being a legislative priority in 2014. “It’s evident from the hearings that we’ve had today and yesterday that we need to give our full attention to the state textbook commission and its structure and its function,” said the Somerville Republican.