School textbooks might need NJ’s diversity stamp of approval
TRENTON — A bill moving through the Legislature could change the way New Jersey school districts buy textbooks by requiring them to use vendors that accurately reflect the diversity of society – such as by gender, race, ethnicity, disability and sexual orientation.
State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, said the goal of S2978 is to ensure more schools use inclusive textbooks for subjects such as history and geography. Math and science wouldn’t be included under an amendment she plans to make to the bill.
“Our students only see through one lens of what American history looks like when in fact we know it was much richer and much greater,” Ruiz said. “And we just want to be sure that every child in the state gets an opportunity to really witness curriculum that is inclusive of all of them.”
State Sen. Mike Doherty, R-Warren, said he agrees that textbooks shouldn’t reflect glossed-up versions of the truth but that the proposal is vague, troubling and interferes with the tradition of home rule.
“This just seems to be moving into a whole realm that’s rather disturbing, that the government would want to reach that far into the minds of people, to control them and what they see and what they get,” Doherty said.
“We don’t care that we had an election. We don’t care that you have the best interests of your community. We don’t care that you folks are paying 95 percent, 100 percent of your school bill,” he said. “Here, we’re going to tell you that you’ve got to use this textbook for typing class because it’s got some information in there that we like to see. Because it’s accurate, whatever that means.”
Ruiz said she hopes “people are open and receptive to understanding what the truths are in this country,” beyond the traditional perspective of history books.
“Even though we have things in place to attempt to make sure that our curriculum is inclusive of the diversity in this country and in this state, it’s not happening in every school district.” Ruiz said. “And it’s certainly reflective in the textbook materials that we get.”
Some education officials say a state-compiled list of inclusive textbooks should be a helpful resource but not a requirement.
“I would even assume that most districts would use the list. But I just don’t know how they would feel if it’s a mandated list and this is the list that they would have to use,” said Sharon Seyler, a legislative advocate for the New Jersey School Boards Association.
“Our members expressed a desire to just have the list be a tool that could be used by districts and districts would be encouraged to choose from the list, rather than have it be a mandate,” said Jennie Lamon, assistant director of government relations for the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.
Ruiz said if the bill is permissive, rather than mandatory, it would lose its intent of exposing students to a diversity of perspectives.
“I think that there are materials out there that allow for that. I’m sure some school districts have it. I don’t think that’s the case across the board.”
It wouldn’t take effect until 19 months after it is enacted – meaning the second half of 2020, at the earliest. And at that point it would apply to future textbooks purchases, not require schools to replace what they have on hand.
A companion Assembly bill, A4582, was introduced last month and hasn’t yet gotten a hearing.