Movement to ensure they are accurate, unbiased ignites legislative fight
At the latest front in the war over Tennessee textbooks, a Williamson County parent whose objections helped spark the entire controversy now says all the books her group has reviewed have flaws.
Laurie Cardoza-Moore's quest to discard a geography book she claimed was anti-Semitic failed last year. But now as Tennessee school districts prepare to adopt new textbooks for 2014-15, she has broadened her target to include one of the most powerful companies in public education: Pearson, a publishing company that she alleges has a history of bias.
"If they're going to pay for a product, it better not be defective," said Cardoza-Moore, who was among several parents who spoke in November at the state Senate Education Committee's hearings on the role of the state textbook commission.
Her group's complaints have ignited a textbook uproar in the state legislature, arming conservative lawmakers with a litany of passages and excerpts they claim are biased or inaccurate. Battles over textbooks, on display during the recent two-day hearings, have played out elsewhere, most notably in Texas. Here, Republican lawmakers say it began with anecdotes from parents in Williamson, Davidson and Sumner counties, but has now turned into a groundswell across the state.
Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, chairwoman of the Education Committee — who called the Williamson County episode the "catalytic event" that began the statewide conversation — plans to introduce legislation that would give more sway to public input in the approval of textbooks. It's one of several bills involving textbooks that could arise next year.
"I'm just looking for accuracy," Gresham said. "I'm just looking for (textbooks) to be correct."
As a part of the textbook adoption cycle in Tennessee, social studies books are now up for review for all grade levels. Local school boards make the final decisions, but they rely heavily on teachers' suggestions from lists approved by the Tennessee Board of Education via the textbook commission, a 10-member group of educators, nine of whom are appointed by the governor. More than 70 social studies books — many flagged by conservatives — were approved for a six-year cycle on Oct. 25.
Top Republican lawmakers have asked that the state board of education take a second look at some of the titles it just approved.
The entire process has come under fire from Cardoza-Moore and others who want more involvement in the review process, an area that Gresham's legislation seeks to address. She said her bill would give public input "more effect" on the commission's approval process. What that looks like is still unclear, though she discussed a new timeline to ensure public input doesn't come at the "11th hour," as she believes it did during the recent review of social studies books.
"Public input seemed to be more like an afterthought, or maybe as much of a courtesy, but certainly had no effect on their approval of the books," Gresham said.
Others like Cardoza-Moore believe a law might be in order to hold publishing companies financially and legally responsible for content.
She and others believe books produced by Pearson in particular are filled with inaccuracies and bias. Pearson, which has its head office in London, published the book that Cardoza-Moore claimed was anti-Semitic. The same company, one of the largest brands in education today, produces tests associated with new Common Core academic standards and has started to become a target of Common Core critics nationally.
"Pearson is not a U.S.-based company and is not interested in the American way of thinking," she said. "If we're paying millions of dollars for textbooks, should they not be accurate and vetted for bias?"
Pearson spokeswoman Susan Aspey disagreed, saying her company is committed to presenting balanced, unbiased and accurate programs that align with the state's curriculum requirements.
"We stand behind the integrity of our content, our authors, and our rigorous editorial process," she said in an email. "Pearson's North American education business is based here, in North America, and the thousands of U.S.-based Pearson employees are honored to serve the American public education system."
Cardoza-Moore filed a complaint in April with Williamson County school officials after speaking out at school board meetings and gathering 700 signatures against the use of a high school Advanced Placement geography textbook. In response to her complaints, a committee reviewed the 500-page book and deemed it not biased. Cardoza-Moore appealed but was again denied by the county school board.
Since then, Cardoza-Moore and about 30-40 parents from Williamson and Rutherford counties have been reviewing textbooks that the state textbook commission has approved.
She says the books are riddled with inaccurate dates and events, in addition to anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, pro-Islamic, pro-Marxist, anti-American and anti-Western content.
At issue during recent Senate hearings were complaints on textbooks that Gresham's office has contained in a bulky folder.
Among the issues
Claudia Henneberry, a retired teacher from Franklin and activist in the tea party-affiliated 9.12 Project, zeroed in on a book called "American Government and Politics Today," among others. A few of her issues with it:
• The book says "early colonists were intolerant of religious beliefs that did not quite conform to (their own)." She says the early colonists risked their lives to come to the new world for religious freedom and tolerance.
• She claims that capitalism is portrayed as unfair and the wealthy as greedy.
• She alleges that white, Protestant, conservative and Southern people are described negatively, pointing to the phrase "The White South" to describe the South and objecting to this passage: "The Democratic Party (after the 1950s) … advocated racial integration and other civil rights policies that drove white, Protestant, Southern voters who opposed these initiatives away."
Mike Bell, R-Riceville, who also has made the case against biased books, said the review process should be more transparent and user-friendly for parents. He also referenced potential changes to the composition of the state textbook commission. Those leading the textbook complaints have asked that parent representatives be included on the panel.
Gov. Bill Haslam has urged his fellow Republicans to "look carefully" when making such changes, especially in light of the state's recent gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But he seemed open to the idea of allowing non-educators such as parents to sit on the commission.
"I think some laypeople on it would be fine," Haslam said. "The important thing is to have people who truly are committed to the idea that in Tennessee, every child can learn."
The state is considering an online method of review, but for now the textbooks are held for review at 10 locations throughout the state.
Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, plans to propose legislation in January to create an online site for parents, community members and educators to submit textbook reviews and analyses. He said volunteers could review the texts, filling in where the textbook commission falls short, and no tax dollars would be used.
Unlikely bedfellows, neither Cardoza-Moore nor Williamson County Schools Director Mike Looney believes Casada's proposal will work. She says it's creating a separate entity that is unnecessary, and Looney agrees that a new law isn't needed.
He believes there should be more public inclusion, and he says his staff is developing strategies to invite input. "We want to do right by the public, obviously, but we want the whole public and not people with a slant on political, social and religious topics."
Looney said publishers write for their clients, their biggest customers being public school systems in California and Texas. Often textbooks are better aligned with these states' guidelines, he said. Also, choices are limited because few vendors provide high-quality texts for schools, he added.
But Looney believes eventually electronic books and the Common Core standards will have a hand in improving things.
"There is not a perfect textbook," he said. "If you end up adopting a textbook that has an issue, we wouldn't teach children something wrong. At the end of the day, the teachers are going to do the right thing."