Joe Henderson: Textbook challenge gives school boards more headaches

school textbooks

You may remember last summer, when state Rep. Byron Donalds successfully pushed to expand the pool of people who can challenge the content in public school textbooks.

Rather than trust professional educators to do their jobs (which we all know are best done by those with political agendas), school boards were required to hire an “unbiased hearing officer” so any resident in their district, whether they have kids in school or not, can formally object to what children are being taught.

The officer hears the textbook challenge and then makes a recommendation to the board. The board has the final say.

And this accomplishes … what?

I mean, besides causing more headaches for school board members, as if they don’t have enough? I can almost picture some lawmakers laughing over drinks at the club at the potential chaos they had unleashed.

The law opened the door widely for self-appointed watchdogs to quibble over the wording of every single line in a textbook, particularly those used to teach history and science — which, I’m guessing, was the idea all along.

This might be a good time to note that Donalds’ wife, Erika Donalds, wants a constitutional amendment that would eliminate salaries for school board members throughout the state.

In addition to serving on Florida’s Constitutional Review Commission, she is a member of the Collier County School Board. Donalds argues that it isn’t a full-time job and certainly isn’t worth a $40,000 salary. I think a lot of peers would disagree.

It doesn’t look like that idea will make it to the ballot.

I always shake my head at the gall of those who complain loudly when Washington sends an edict out to the states, but have no problem when Tallahassee does the same to local communities.

If she thinks her school district would be better served by making the board a volunteer position, fine. She should bring to a vote at her next meeting. She also should let other districts handle their own business.

That brings us to back to the textbook challenge law.

The Associated Press reported on some of the issues raised. One person wanted Ray Bradbury’s classic book “Fahrenheit 451” pulled from the classroom because it had some rough language.

The irony of trying to ban a book about banning books says a lot about this challenge bill.

The Florida Citizens Alliance doesn’t seem too keen on teaching the effect man is having on climate change, at least not without adding counterarguments that basically go, “Nah.”

Grown-ups have been complaining forever in every corner of this country about what children are taught in schools. Usually, the complaints center around topics that clash with a person’s views on religion, sex, values, or political persuasion.

School boards have dealt effectively with those things over the ages. What the Legislature did, though, was legitimize anyone pushing an agenda, no matter how extreme.

Yes, boards have the final say on any recommendation from the “unbiased hearing officer” — but how long until someone in the Legislature decides that isn’t working and tries to require boards to adopt what the officer says?

Then, of course, lawmakers would eventually want to dictate who is hired as that “unbiased hearing officer.”

When that happens, you can hear the battle cry: Let the textbook scrubbing begin.

Joe Henderson

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.

One comment

  • Ginger Littleton

    November 29, 2017 at 12:55 pm

    Joe, your comments are spot on. Bay County went through a bloodbath on book banning about 20 years ago, and it was ugly! You are correct in stating that the losers are the learners. I now chair the Bay District School Board, and more and more we see public education being used to advance personal agendas and preferences (can you say charter schools??). Not sure how Collier County got so lucky as to have a few folks who assume they are much smarter than the average bear and therefore should tell all of us how to conduct our local business of educating our youngsters!

    Now we have HB 1 which gives any kid who complains a voucher to move under the guise of being bullied. Of course, the bully remains but the funding flees with the bullied and the cyle continues. Seems like another back door way to send funds to prefered locations.

    Anyway, as public education appears to be on the defensive and legislators seem to favor continuing to degrade its ability to serve ALL youngsters, charters continue to rake in the favored, affluent families. I am not sure how things have worked out in other counties, but in Bay County we are moving toward more segregation, and the socioeconomic divide between charters and our other public schools continues to grow.

    Our country was founded on public discourse, disagreement, compromise, discussion. Adding a layer of what could well amount to censorship cannot serve any of those foundational enterprises very well. Continue the good fight, Joe! We need your voice!!

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