In the case of legislation pending before Gov. Rick Perry, too many friends seem to be fighting a proxy battle on the wrong turf. At issue is whether local schools should be allowed to use dollars allocated for textbooks to purchase electronic texts. Not required, just allowed. The legislation is HB 4294 by State Rep. Dan Branch and some want it vetoed. That’s just not productive.

In my office, and in most offices, ledger books no longer exist. We use computer spreadsheets. Capitol hearing rooms are filled with people pecking away notes on a Blackberry, Treo or iPhone. Corporate travelers listen to podcasts of the Wall Street Journal while reading memos from the office on “netbooks” balanced on latte cups. My father-in-law comfortably reads history books in his spare time on the Amazon Kindle.

I’ve received dozens of documents from opponents of electronic textbooks — but not a single one printed on paper. All were electronic. Some went on for pages. Most linked to websites, PDFs and online commentaries.

In general, public education is no different today than it was in 1909. A government monopoly. School attendance based on residential zip code. A teacher, a blackboard and desks with gum stuck underneath. In some very aggressively modern schools, the blackboards have been replaced by whiteboards. In many cases, technology intrudes ridiculously on the classroom; video monitors displaying nothing more than the principal offering morning announcements. Expensive, and ineffective.

Conservatives have rightly criticized all of this.

But slowly the use of technology in academia is coming of age, electronic books are more widely available and practical. Errors in such texts can be more easily fixed. I remember vividly one of my junior high history texts claiming Lyndon Johnson became president in 1973 — a typo, of course. An errata sheet probably existed somewhere on campus; I never saw it. Printed textbooks stay in the classroom about 10 years, errors and all. Errors in electronic texts can be corrected in seconds.

Practically, lugging five textbooks home is a hassle — but one e-reader can carry dozens of times that many books. (That’s why I read books on my Blackberry; it saves space when traveling!)

There are problems, as well. The devices can be lost. They are sturdy, but not impervious to destruction. Though the same is true of textbooks. Concerns exist about misuse of the technology, theft (no one ever stole my Calculus book, to my chagrin), and even viruses.

Here is where this current fight is a proxy.

Many of my friends are fighting the legislation because they fear the loss of power by the State Board of Education (electronic texts will have to be purchased from a list compiled by the Commissioner of Education). They fear the choices school districts will make in picking electronic textbooks over the paper versions endorsed by the SBOE. Perhaps a reasonable fear, given what we see some school districts do with the people’s money.

But if done in the sunlight, those school districts will still be answerable to the parents for the choices made and the impact on academic excellence.

Members of the SBOE have been under relentless attack by the press, from the left and the right. They may well be justified in seeing everything as a move to strip away their control.

Frankly, I have a hard time worrying too much about the SBOE, mainly because I have a hard time worrying about the continuation of an institution for the sake of the institution.

I instead worry about whether or not kids are exiting our public schools with the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy. I worry that 50% of public school kids entering four-year colleges require basic remediation. I worry that we have doubled per-student spending, and yet SAT scores remain flat. I worry that we see the number of administrators on the rise, while experienced classroom teachers flee.

Most SBOE members, and indeed most Texans, share those same worries.

Fighting over which segment of a bureacracy controls what fiefdom doesn’t strike me as particularly useful or interesting. Indeed, it strikes me as counterproductive.

Rep. Branch’s legislation would provide an option to educators. Some districts will undoubtedly use it poorly, an excuse to further an agenda or waste money. Some will undoubtedly use it well, bringing greater efficiency and effectiveness to the classroom.

It’s time to end the top-down management of the tools of learning. Rather than clinging to a selection process for pulp-based books, the SBOE should be ensuring our dollars are used to achieve academic success and providing the benchmarks to measure effectiveness. In fact, that’s what some of HB4294 does — it gives the SBOE more oversight for the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, the stuff kids are required to learn.

Under the new law, districts would have to certify that their textbooks, electronic textbooks and other instructional materials for core subjects, at each grade level, cover all elements of the TEKS adopted by the SBOE. This requirement does not exist today.

It may be more sexy to argue over textbook styles, but deciding the information kids will be required to know is far more important.

Conservatives say we favor more choices in education. Sometimes that means we won’t have the power to choose. Maybe we’ll bristle when other people make choices we don’t like. But being for local choice of learning materials seems to be the powerfully conservative position. Let’s take it.

Michael Quinn Sullivan

Michael Quinn Sullivan is the publisher of Texas Scorecard. He is a native Texan, a graduate of Texas A&M, and Eagle Scout. Previously, he has worked as a newspaper reporter, magazine contributor, Capitol Hill staffer, think tank vice president. Michael and his wife have three adult children, and a dog. Check out his podcast, Reflections on Life and Liberty.


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