Sunday, September 24, 2023

Judging a Book By its Cover: School Board Declines to Approve Controversial Social Studies Textbook

The WJCC School Board voted against the adoption and purchase of social studies textbooks due to controversy over an AP US Government and Politics book. (Courtesy of Unsplash)

WILLIAMSBURG-JAMES CITY COUNTY — The Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools (WJCC) School Board voted against the purchase of new social studies textbooks and materials due to controversy over the process of textbook selection.

The controversial book in question is the Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. Government and Politics textbook “Government in America: People, Politics, and Policy, 2020 Presidential Election Edition.”

During the meeting that took place on Tuesday, April 19, the school board heard criticism over the recently-approved textbook from several residents over concerns regarding critical race theory (CRT).

One speaker questioned whether the book was a manual on how to “train children to be social justice warriors for leftist ideals.”

Other speakers criticized the cover of the book, which includes a photo of Black Lives Matter protesters in Washington, D.C., calling the teachings “divisive.”

The textbook was one of four recommended by textbook committees comprised of a curriculum coordinator, teachers, specialists, parents, administrators, and a school board member. The goal was to meet the social studies resource and textbook needs for Virginia Studies, AP US History, AP US Government and Politics, and AP Economics.

Access to digital materials was provided for citizen review from Feb. 18 through March 11, and input from committee members was collected using a rubric of the textbook selection criteria. A public textbook adoption fair was also held on March 10.

The Board was to vote on the request for the adoption and purchase of social studies textbooks and instructional materials at a total cost of $130,921.19, and an Associated Budget Transfer.

However, some members of the Board were concerned with the textbook review process.

Board member Sarah Ortego said that the division staff identified significant issues in the textbook review process during the previous meeting, including seeing the need for more than one public textbook fair and extending the time for stakeholders to review and give feedback.

Ortego and Board member Sandra Young agreed that it was in the best interest of all stakeholders for the review process to be revised before voting to approve textbook selection.

The division’s superintendent Dr. Olwen Herron said that the decision was “absolutely time sensitive” because the books needed to be ordered and delivered by June 30.

“The process has been consistent over a number of years and we allotted more time to this year,” Herron said.

While Board member Kyra Cook said that revisions to the review process could inform future processes, she was in support of approving the textbooks under review.

“I think it’s of note that the textbooks that are under review for every division in the state are pre-approved by the Virginia Department of Education,” Cook said. “So we aren’t in a position to review or consider textbooks for adoption that aren’t already pre-approved, and I’m proud to say that we have one of the best education systems in the country. So I’m inclined to trust that process.” 

Chairman Greg Dowell noted that he did not see content in the book that was glaringly offensive or divisive, but that he could see how it might be construed that way.

Board member Kimberly Hundley said that she felt that the content within the book is relevant to the current political landscape.

The Board denied the request in a 4-3 vote, with Vice Chair James Beers, along with Cook and Hundley voting in favor, and Hummel, Ortego, Young and Dowell voting against it.

A motion to remove the controversial textbook from the list and only approve the remaining three also did not pass.

Cook expressed her disappointment in the Board’s decision.

“I am disappointed in the action that this Board took today with regard to social studies curriculum resources,” she said. “I think we deprived our children of new textbooks and deprives our teachers of the opportunity to use new materials.”

Hummel said that she is hopeful that the textbooks will be approved this year after they move forward with a new review process.

“I think that in this particular case for this particular book, I think things have been very controversial this year, and if we are making a decision on a textbook that’s going to be around for five years, it would just be nice to give it a little extra thought,” Hummel said.

However, Herron noted that it would be nearly impossible to institute a new process for this year, as the approval was time sensitive.

“Curriculum staff are now focused on preparing students for SOLs [Standards of Learning] so it’s extremely unlikely that this will come back to you this year.”

Young said that she was pleased that the books were not adopted.

“We don’t lean one way politically and because of that, I think the books that we adopt should be representative of our total community,” Young said. “I do understand that the decision we made tonight was unusual, but I do think it was an important decision.”

Beers noted that the Board “came far short” from hearing from the majority of parents in the division on the matter.

“We instead heard from a relatively small, very critical group of individuals, and I am surprised that somehow that’s swayed members of our board to make the decision that they made,” he said.

Dowell said that he voted against adoption of the textbook because “we are transitioning out of a period of discord in our community and our country,” and was concerned that the book would cause further division.

The WJCC School Board will hold a work session meeting on Tuesday, May 3 at 4:30 p.m. at the School Board & Central Office – Rm. 300, 117 Ironbound Rd.

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