NASHVILLE - State lawmakers hit the books on Monday, or rather the state Textbook Commission, as they began hearings on complaints raised by social conservatives about some instructional materials approved by the state for public schools.
Along the way they swerved into a lack of public input as well as the Bible, creationism, "rape fantasies" in a proposed psychology book for high schoolers and no real training for commission members.
"I know that I'm here because of the concerns that I've heard from people around this state who have been looking into our children's textbooks and have seen issues with accuracy and with bias," said Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, at the outset of the joint meeting with the Education Committee.
The 10-member Textbook Commission is comprised of educators appointed by the governor to recommend books to the State Board of Education, which when approved puts them on the official list of books from which local school districts select for use for their students.
Commissioners' actions are based on the work of 27 reviewers, all licensed teachers, who read and evaluate proposed books from publishers.
State Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, questioned the public review process. He cited a controversy in Knox County over a biology book which the lawmaker noted "more or less said creationism is a myth." Members of the public objected to that, said Campfield.
"The school board said, 'OK, that's nice. We've heard from you. We're keeping the book.'"
Campfield suggested critics be given the ability to torpedo a local district's choice through petition.
Earlier, two top state Education Department officials outlined recommendations to address some issues. They included improving the public's ability to review proposed books, expanding the "provider pipeline" of textbook companies and doing away with an expensive state bonding requirement.
The bonds of up to $1 million discourage smaller companies from entering Tennessee's market and lowering the costs of books, said Emily Barton, the department's assistant commissioner for curriculum and instruction. The department has already moved to lower it and is exploring other options.
Barton also said there is "a need for a stronger public review process" making it easier for parents to review proposed books. The state is looking at making them available for review online.
Moreover, the officials said, commission members get virtually no training although the reviewers do. Commissioners are paid $15 a day for their trouble which recently have engulfed them in the social textbook wars that have swept other states.
Tullahoma Schools Director Dan Lawson, appointed to the Textbook Commission in May, agreed about the lack of training. When he came he was given a copy of the state statute and what appeared to be a 20-year-old DVD, he said.
Lawson described a blow up earlier this year over approval of some social studies textbooks. There were at least 94 books reviewed. Lawson described looking at ten of the texts most often criticized, comparing parents' or activists' complaints with what reviewers found.
The director said he successfully moved to reject one book proposed for advanced placement psychology classes that contained a "passage on rape fantasies." Lawson said he "thought that was inappropriate for high school students."
Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, questioned a letter he said was written by another Textbook Commission member, Warren County Schools Director John R. "Bobby" Cox, which Kelsey said stated "we know we can't bring a Bible to school."
Kelsey, an attorney, denounced it as "clearly erroneous" and "quite troubling."
Jeremy Anderson, president of the Education Commission of the States, reviewed statutes in other states. Virginia and Utah have developed fairly comprehensive statutes on choosing textbooks he said.
Both states hold publishers responsible for guaranteeing books are factual and meet state standards through an independent professional review.
Speaking to reporters later, Lawson noted that much of the concerns voiced by lawmakers involved perceived bias.
"Bias is going to be very much in the eye of the beholder. I will have a bias about the importance of barbers in society that's quite different from you," said Lawson, who is balding.
Bell later said, "I absolutely believe that bias is in the eye of the beholders." But he said "I just want to make sure that the textbooks we're using reflect the culture of Tennesseans ... It's whose culture and morals are going to be represented?"
Lawmakers will resume work today, hearing from parents and other critics. Bell said he already expects legislation to come out of the discussions and showed interest in what states like Louisiana and Utah are doing.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.