Texas has never been afraid of bold education initiatives, and the passage of Texas House Bill 2488 in June 2009 was definitely bold. The bill, "Relating to open-source textbooks and other instructional materials for public schools," made modifications to the Texas Education Code that explicitly allow adoption of open source textbooks in Texas schools.
Great stuff, right? Well, not everybody thinks so -- Geraldine "Tincy" Miller, of the Texas State Board of Education, is aghast:
House Bill 2488 – the “open source” textbook bill – is a watershed piece of legislation that unfortunately passed and went under the radar of most Board members. Now that it is taking form, and accelerating at a rapid pace, there is reason for grave concern.
The SBOE has developed a textbook adoption process that is a model for other states. It implements the highest quality curriculum standards for the state through a process where the Texas Education Agency, educators, parents and students work closely with the Board in a transparent and open process.
House Bill 2488 ignores a process that has been in place for years and has resulted in great success. It offers no chance for review or public participation. No one – including the SBOE – will be able to evaluate the materials before they are sold to schools in March 2010.
The effects of this bill run deep. It will eliminate materials that are aligned with state standards and will allow questionable resources into the system that will be there for years to come.
Which, naturally, leads us down the political rabbit hole. From texasinsider.org:
These attacks are occurring through the adoption of open source textbook rules proposed by the Texas Education Commission, rules that completely exclude public participation in curriculum development and circumvent the opportunity for educators, parents and the public to review and comment on instructional material before it is adopted for classroom use.
The open-source rules would allow school districts to buy instructional material that has not gone through the public review and comment process and, by doing so, threaten to undermine decades of public input that is responsible for the quality public education system Texans enjoy today.
We need Gov. Perry to stand tall against these proposed Texas bureaucratic proposals and to prevent the TEA from doing at the state level what he is stopping Washington from doing to Texas curriculum at the federal level.
What's actually going on here?
The bill certainly seems to sidestep the SBOE's authority. Whenever you see "shall" in a piece of legislation, get your popcorn ready, because someone's about to fight. If they changed "shall" to "shalt", it would be positively biblical. Look, there it is:
The State Board of Education SHALL place an open-source textbook for a secondary-level course submitted for adoption by an eligible institution on a conforming or nonconforming list if (blah blah long list of seemingly reasonable requirements).
Naturally, no one in the Texas SBOE is going to take kindly to such abrogation of their authority. And maybe they have a point.
Theoretically, there's no reason that open source textbooks shouldn't be subject to the same approval processes as traditional textbooks. We don't exempt open source software from government security or quality guidelines for good reasons -- and Red Hat now makes a very tidy business by putting open source software through precisely these kinds of quality control processes.
Remember, though: it took the open source software community many years to develop software that was robust enough to pass these quality tests -- and it's likely that open source textbooks will face the same slow, uphill battle.
Look, the nice folks in the Texas legislature didn't pass this bill with the intent of corrupting the minds of little bitty Texans. They did it to fund the creation of open source textbooks, now. Why? Because their goal is to save the taxpayers of Texas millions and millions of dollars now -- dollars that currently go to proprietary textbook publishers. That's certainly a worthwhile goal (unless you're a proprietary textbook publisher). If anything belongs in the commons, it's the materials that we use to provide a basic education to our citizens.
Just slow it down a little, Texas. Think it through. If someone can make a reasonable case that you that your move to an open source model actually reduces transparency, that probably means that You're Doing It Wrong.
It takes time to build a commons properly. We feel your pain, but there's no hurry. Slow down. Bring your stakeholders with you. Re-engage with the Texas SBOE and figure out an approval model for open source textbooks that works for them. Building an engaged community is essential in building a commons that lasts. It may take longer, and it may be incredibly frustrating -- bureaucracies always are -- but time, and history, are on your side.
(Of course, if it ultimately turns out that the SBOE is against the very idea of open source textbooks, then we will offer a very different opinion indeed.)