by Dr. Terry Stoops
Former Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
The rarely noticed North Carolina Textbook Commission is having a moment. Last week, Club for Growth Action aired a campaign advertisement supporting Rep. Ted Budd that referenced a long-forgotten blog post I wrote in 2014. Disappointingly, the commercial makes the claim that “Pat (McCrory) put liberals in charge of state textbooks.” My blog post being referenced, however, simply pointed out that there were more Democrats appointed to the commission than Republicans or unaffiliateds. The label “liberal” was never used.
Moreover, the blog post, along with the Club for Growth ad, lacked important context about the Textbook Commission and the textbook adoption process. This article will provide that context.
Lawmakers first proposed the creation of a state textbook commission in 1899. Two years later, they approved legislation to create a board that would ensure “uniformity” of instructional materials used in public schools. Shortly after the bill’s passage, lawmakers invited publishers to submit textbooks related to subjects included in the public school curriculum. These included the core subjects such as reading, writing, and arithmetic, as well as hygiene and the “nature and effect of alcoholic drinks and narcotics.”
Today, North Carolina is one of 20 states and the District of Columbia to have a state agency textbook adoption process. State statute requires the North Carolina State Board of Education to select and adopt “the basic textbooks or series of books needed for instructional purposes at each instructional level on all subject matter required by law to be taught in elementary and secondary schools of North Carolina.”
The enormity of the task of reviewing hundreds of textbook submissions from dozens of publishers would require an extraordinary amount of time for the members of the State Board of Education. State law creates the North Carolina Textbook Commission to assist them in the effort.
The commission is a 23-member board of public school educators, administrators, and parents “appointed by the Governor upon recommendation of the Superintendent [of Public Instruction]” for four-year terms. The governor is allowed to reject a superintendent’s nominee, according to a Department of Public Instruction spokesperson, but the governor cannot, however, appoint someone who has not been nominated by the superintendent. State statute is silent on how to resolve disagreements between the governor and superintendent of public instruction over the composition of the commission.
State statute outlines minimum requirements for the review of textbooks by the commission members. These include multiple public meetings, evaluation of textbooks by at least one subject-area expert, and formal written assessments submitted by reviewers and advisors. These evaluators use criteria established by the board to examine all aspects of the textbook and supplementary materials that accompany it, particularly the degree to which textbook content corresponds to state academic standards.
After completing the evaluation process, the Textbook Commission develops lists of approved textbooks for each grade and subject. These lists include multiple options for school boards and district leaders to consider. For example, the commission reviewed science textbooks in 2015. The 48-page list (revised in 2020) includes approved textbooks published by Accelerate Learning, Carolina, LearnEd, National Geographic/Cengage Learning, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill School Education, and Perfection Learning. As such, textbooks approved by the commission vary from district to district and sometimes from school to school and classroom to classroom.
Once the State Board of Education approves the Textbook Commission recommendations, school district evaluators review the list to determine if the content of the textbooks and the supplementary materials recommended by the commission meet the needs of the educators and students in their district. Yet if they find that none of the recommended textbooks are suitable, school districts may use textbook funds to adopt instructional materials that the commission does not include in its list of approved textbooks. This is a sensible policy designed to respect decisions by those who interact with children daily.
North Carolina’s textbook selection process is comprehensive and well designed, but disagreements over the selection of textbooks still occurs. In 1988, for example, historians panned the Textbook Commission’s U.S. history textbook recommendations. In 2001, members of the State Board of Education were so distressed by the number of factual errors found in textbooks that they considered asking public school educators to compile and share lists of mistakes. While most state-adopted books had a handful of typos or errors, the Charlotte Observer reported that one book contained up to 276 errors.
Fortunately, when disagreements or concerns about textbooks arise, state law authorizes school boards to create a community media advisory committee. The purpose of the committee is to “investigate and evaluate challenges from parents, teachers, and members of the public to textbooks and supplementary instructional materials on the grounds that they are educationally unsuitable, pervasively vulgar, or inappropriate to the age, maturity, or grade level of the students.” By including parents and concerned citizens in pre- and post-adoption reviews, school districts can make better-informed decisions about the textbooks used by children daily.
Note: The original version of this article has been updated to provide greater clarity about the 2014 blog post and Club for Growth Action commercial.