Englins bill would force textbook publishers to get story straight

Englins bill would force textbook publishers to get story straight
The Alexandria City School Board is requesting an increase of $1.1 million to the interim superintendent's proposed FY2019 operating budget (File photo)

Forget about judging a book by its cover. An Alexandria state delegate wants textbooks thoroughly vetted by experts before they end up in the hands of Virginias school children.

A bill filed by Del. David Englin (D-45) Monday would require publishing companies to have experts review textbooks in exchange for state certification status. While school boards still could order books from uncertified publishers, the overhaul is designed to keep factual errors from slipping by committees of teachers and administrators, Englin said. 

Under the current system, theres no requirement for [an] expert review, he said. The current system uses panels of volunteer reviewers and they just dont have the capacity to review every book. There arent enough hours in the day to review every single book.

The bill was spun out of a review of 13 history and social studies textbooks currently used across the state, which turned up a number of factual errors, including one claim that the U.S. entered World War I in 1916 rather than 1917.

The panel of historians began double-checking the books at the behest of the Virginia Board of Education after Our Virginia, Past and Present asserted that thousands of black soldiers fought for the Confederacy. The controversial claim sparked outcry from parents and academics in October. 

While Englin admits some subjects, like history, lend themselves to differing interpretations, getting basic facts wrong is unacceptable. 

Theres not room for interpretation as to the date that the U.S. entered World War I, he said. Theres not room for interpretation whether thousands of African Americans fought for the south in the Civil War. Its just a fabrication, not a fact.

According to school officials, Alexandria did not use the now-controversial book, published by Five Ponds Press, but nearby Arlington and Fairfax counties included the text in their curricula.

Five Ponds Press is cooperating with state officials to amend the problems, but under the current system, theres no requirement for them to do so, Englin said. He worries another company might have left taxpayers in the lurch, stuck with erroneous and unusable learning materials. 

Were his bill signed into law, publishing companies would be held accountable for mistakes in their textbooks. 

Youve got to agree up front that youre going to have to bear the financial cost of fixing [mistakes], Englin said. 

The delegate from Del Ray is working closely with City Councilman Rob Krupicka, also a member of the state board of education, to tackle the problem. The controversy over Our Virginia exposed the current vetting systems shortcomings, he said. 

The short story is over the course of the last year its become abundantly clear that the way Virginia approves textbooks for students in our schools does not guarantee a level of quality that parents should expect, Krupicka said. While the controversy over the Civil War mistakes led us to do this deep review of history and social studies textbooks, lets use this controversy and [meet these] challenges.

Krupicka believes the new certification process will encourage publishers to tailor material for individual classes and students using the latest digital technology. When the board of education meets again this month, theyll begin revamping their textbook reviewing process to bring it inline with Englins legislation, he said.

The bottom line is that where we are right now is completely unacceptable, Krupicka said. Parents have a reason to be concerned and we need to fix that. We need to make sure they dont have any reason to doubt.