Wasting no time addressing what conservatives have called a pattern of bias in Tennessee textbooks, a Republican senator has filed legislation to give lawmakers a say over who sits on a key panel that reviews the materials.
In addition, the comprehensive bill would establish criteria for reviewing textbooks, including an examination on whether they are "free from biases in their viewpoints" and "reflect the values" of Tennessee citizens — language already under criticism because of its potential to draw wide-ranging interpretations.
"It's a complete overhaul of the textbook commission," said Mike Bell, R-Riceville, chairman of the Senate Government Operations Committee. Bell has sponsored the bill with eight others, including Education Committee chairwoman Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville.
"Before, they were not even required to look for factual errors," Bell said.
The 10-member Tennessee Textbook Commission — which reviews and recommends textbooks for the state board of education to approve and local school boards to adopt — is currently comprised of nine appointees from the governor as well one ex-officio member, the state education commissioner.
The bill would divide those nine appointments among both legislative chambers and the executive branch, giving three apiece to the House Speaker, lieutenant governor and governor. Each commission member would need confirmation by the Tennessee General Assembly, a process that would begin in 2015.
The legislation, filed on the first day of the new session, comes as Tea Party activists and some parents have ramped up demands for a stronger, more accountable textbook review process. The Senate Education Committee held a two-day hearing on the issue in November.
"When we started receiving complaints about the textbook issue, our constituents were calling us," Bell said. "They're not calling the governor's office. They're not calling the textbook commission directly. They call their senator or representative.
"We thought it was important that the legislature have a say on who sits on the board."
A spokesman for Gov. Bill Haslam said his office is aware of the legislation but hadn't reviewed it. A Democrat, Sen. Reginald Tate of Memphis, is named as one of the nine sponsors.
The proposal also delves into advisory panels, which the textbook commission assembles to review specific books. It mandates that panelists have knowledge and expertise in the subject and that they review all public comments delivered on textbooks.
The state department of education would provide mandatory training to instruct the commission on the review process. Members would have to look at how the textbooks conform to education standards, check for factual and grammatical errors and ensure the books are free of bias and reflect the state's values.
"What does that mean?" asked Remziya Suleyman of the American Center for Outreach, who fears that measure could stoke textbook revision debates over slavery and the Civil Rights era. "Whose values are you accepting?"
Other provisions in the bill are aimed at transparency, Bell said, including making textbooks up for adoption viewable online. A separate component is meant to increase the number of bids the state receives from textbook publishing companies. Companies would also have to agree to correct errors found in textbooks.
Meanwhile, textbook commissioners who violate their conflict-of-interest oath would be subject to criminal prosecution. Under current law, they are only dismissed from the commission.