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W.Va. Bill Would Give Districts More Choice in Textbook Adoption

A proposal in the West Virginia legislature would give local school districts more control over the books and materials they choose to purchase—and at least a handful of Democratic lawmakers fear that it might also allow some to skirt the teaching of topics such as evolution.

The Charleston News Gazette reports that, under current practice, the state convenes a committee of teachers and content experts, and then figures out what percentage of standards each textbook meets. It puts those that meet 80 percent of the criteria on an approved list from which districts must choose their primary materials.

The bill would keep this system in place, but also allow districts to conduct a similar review on their own for materials not on the list. (Currently, districts have to seek waivers from the state to go off list.)

Some Democratic lawmakers fear that they would use the 80-percent-of-standards-met rule, which is written into the proposal, as a way of avoiding topics like evolution, the newspaper reports, especially because the local school boards are elected, with three members serving as a majority.

The proposal's sponsor, Paul Espinosa, a Republican, defended the proposal in an interview, saying the change would merely allow districts to get materials into students' hands faster.

"The testimony we heard is that the waiver process can take up to 18 months to get approved," he said. "So that really was the primary driver behind this. It will really be up to local school districts to decide if this is something they really want to take on."  

In remarks on the house floor reported by the Charleston News Gazette, Espinosa noted that the state's existing process could already, in theory, permit books that didn't cover evolution to win approval. He urged lawmakers to trust local officials' judgment.

State officials also said that, even when books don't fully cover the content standards, educators are by law required to make sure they teach them all. 

This isn't the first time that West Virginia has kicked up controversy over curriculum. A few years back, it softened some of the language on climate change in the Next Generation Science Standards, which are in use in about 18 states.

The bill cleared the West Virginia house and is awaiting action in its senate.

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