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TN book commission faces scrutiny after lawmakers say textbooks show bias

11:47 AM, Jun 5, 2013   |    comments
State Rep. Glen Casada and other legislators say many of the textbooks in students' backpacks show signs of bias. / File / The Tennessean
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By Josh Adams and Chas Sisk, The Tennessean

Textbooks used in Williamson County classrooms and across the state may be presenting a slanted view of history, science and other subjects, Republican lawmakers say, and an effort may be taking root to revamp how they are selected.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, state Rep. Glen Casada and other legislators say many of the textbooks in students' backpacks show signs of bias. That message comes on the heels of a complaint filed with the Williamson County School District alleging anti-Semitic views in a high school textbook.

Complaints about textbooks come just before the House Government Operations Committee is to hold a "sunset" hearing later this month that could determine whether the State Textbook Commission continues to exist. The commission plays a key role in determining which texts the Tennessee Department of Education will approve for classrooms.

The dispute could grow into an election-year battle over who sets the curriculum for Tennessee's nearly 1 million schoolchildren.

"Hopefully, this commission sees the errors that have been implanted," said Casada, the House Republican Caucus chairman. "If they don't, I think legislators will sunset them and start over."

Representatives for the State Textbook Commission are scheduled to appear before lawmakers June 19.
How the panel works

As with most state agencies, Tennessee law requires representatives for the commission to appear before the legislature every few years to explain its work and justify its continued existence. These sunset hearings are often routine, though they sometimes escalate if lawmakers attempt to make changes.

The commission may have some defenders. House Education Committee Chairman Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, said complaints about textbooks should be directed at the local school officials who make the final decision on which books to buy, rather than the state officials who recommend them.

"Local boards of education can do what they want to," he said. "The buck will stop there."

Any recommendation from the Government Operations Committee would need to be filed as a bill when the legislative session convenes in the fall. Options include reconfiguring the commission's membership and giving the legislature more power to determine who sits on it.

Ten people sit on the State Textbook Commission, which appears to have been set up when Tennessee passed a law requiring free textbooks for all students in 1951.

By law, members must include a county superintendent, a city superintendent, a principal and one teacher each from elementary, middle and high schools. The commission also includes the state's education commissioner and one person from West, East and Middle Tennessee who does not work in education.

Among the charges given to state commission members is to provide texts that "realistically represent our pluralistic society," according to the Department of Education website. The group must also find books that offer opposing views on controversial issues so that students can develop critical-thinking skills.

Kellie Gauthier, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said the number of complaints related to textbooks has not surged recently, though she noted that districts choose specific texts from a list of books approved by the state.Most comments probably wouldbe heard at the local level.

School officials in Williamson County have been dealing with such a controversy. This past winter, parents there raised concerns about a question in a world geography textbook that asked students to consider whether a suicide bomber attacking civilians in a cafe in Israel was terrorism or retaliation for military actions against Palestinians.

According to Casada, R-Franklin, the question is one of many passages that display bias. Students learn very little about the men who founded the U.S. and what is taught portrays them in a negative light, Casada said. Meanwhile, socialists and foreign "despots" who killed hundreds of their countrymen are praised.

McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said he had noted similar leanings in textbooks used in classes taught by his wife.

J.C. Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, said he welcomed scrutiny of the commission. But he added that critics may not realize how difficult it is to review textbooks.

"I've done textbook reviews before," he said. "It's not fun. ... But let's make it transparent, open it up for people to see."

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