Antievolution and Statewide Textbook Adoption: Louisiana comes full circle.

Prompted by Zack Kopplin’s excellent column in the Guardian last week, I became aware of Louisiana’s House Bill 116.   If enacted, the bill would devolve the authority to adopt and select textbooks from state-level control to the authority of local schools and school boards.  In effect this would end statewide textbook adoption in Louisiana.

Kopplin has been one of the main advocates for the repeal of the 2008 Louisiana Science Education Act, which was intended to open the door to the teaching of creation science objections to evolution.  And he rightly points out that although the bill mentions neither science nor biology explicitly, the purpose of the bill is pretty clearly to enable local educators to chose antievolutionary texts when the state’s school board has not adopted anything suitable.  In effect, this law (in conduction with the LSEA) would allow small school district antievolutionists the ability to use the texts of their own choosing without running afoul of the state law.  (This is still presuming that a school district is able to afford the risk of a lawsuit, which I wrote about in a previous post)

What I find fascinating about this legal tactic introduced by State Representative Frank Hoffman is how much it almost exactly reverses what happened in the 1920s school antievolution  movement.  And just like the 1920s era textbook-related legislation had some very unintended consequences, it seems likely that this bill will do the same if it becomes law.

What many people tend to forget is that state-level regulation of textbooks largely came about for reasons having little or nothing to do with interference with school content.  The reason why many states especially in the South took control over textbook adoption away from local school districts was a concern that local boards were subject to corruption.  There are a variety of stories of textbook salesmen arranging kickback schemes with local school board members, salesmen threatening to support an opposing candidate in an upcoming election, and even instances of outright bribery.  The rationale was that a single 5-year adoption before a state board would be less susceptible to corruption, and would prevent the costs of schoolbooks from escalating.

What’s most interesting is the way that textbook publishers reacted.  At last initially, most of them lobbied hard against state-level regulation.  Partly that was because the people doing the lobbying were the salesmen working for the textbook companies, who thought that their own jobs could be at risk if there were fewer adoptions.  Even though a statewide adoption (and the expansion of compulsory schools) potentially meant more textbooks sold by a publisher, the way that many of the companies were set up encouraged resistance to state level adoption.  (If you’re interested in more of this story, read Chapter two of Trying Biology.)

But it was the fact that schoolbooks were adopted at a statewide level that gave more voice to antievolutionism as a school movement.  When, for example, Tennessee adopted George Hunter’s Civic Biology in 1919, the book was seen as more appropriate for urban centers like Memphis, Nashville, and Chattanooga, but its emphasis on the urban applications of biology were not so suitable for more rural and agricultural areas of the state.  The 1925 Scopes trial was in part made possible by the fact that Tennessee operated under statewide control of textbooks.

So in the 1920s, an unintended effect of state-level adoption was the creation of greater support for a school antievolution movement.  In the 2010s, an effort to give more power to antievolutionists by undermining state-level adoption could also have some unforeseen effects.

I don’t think it’s likely that we’re going to go back to the day of the corrupt textbook salesman that pervaded from the 1870s-1920s.  The textbook industry doesn’t have the same clout that it did a century ago, textbooks themselves aren’t as central to classroom practice as they once were.  But it was never only the textbook salesmen who were corrupt; it was also the members of local school boards who took bribes, arranged cozy kickback relationships, and in general abused their position for self gain.  It’s not hard to imagine this coming back with a vengeance if the proposed law passes.  This bill opens the door for a school board to use public funds to purchase textbooks that have not been vetted by experts, but may be written or published by someone with a connection to members of the school board.  Perhaps a school district wants to adopt a supplemental history book written by a brother of a school board member, or a creation science text that was self published by a local church.

It doesn’t seem like Representative Hoffman’s bill has made any provision to replace the anticorruption protections that statewide adoption ensures.  Perhaps one of the most interesting clauses in this bill is the one that changes the way texts are discarded.  Existing law requires that the state board approve of which books a school discards and sells to private individuals and that the board must approve of how those funds are used.  The proposed law would allow local schools to seem any books that they want to as “no longer in use” sell them at whatever price they want to whomever they want, and to sue the funds in any way that they see fit.  The new law would also allow public school boards to allocate funds, books, and other instructional materialist non public school students without any documentation.  This seems like a textbook case (so to speak) of enabling corruption.

Kopplin’s column is excellent, and he explains the real impact of this pending bill on the ongoing fight over the teaching of evolution in Louisiana.  But looking back to the longer history of textbook regulation and its relation to antievolutionism suggests that there’s an even bigger concern.  And perhaps there’s an even bigger reason to be wary of House Bill 116 then the fact that it further enables antievolutionists.

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