When the chief textbook officers from about 20 states meet for their annual summer conference this week in Asheville, N.C., almost every meal will be paid for by a textbook publisher.
The list of sponsors reads like a “Who’s Who” of educational publishers.
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich will hold a brunch in the Thomas Wolfe Suite of the Grove Park Inn. Prentice-Hall/Allyn & Bacon will pay for dinner at the Deerpark Restaurant, followed by a “candlelight tour of Biltmore House,” the former summer home of the wealthy Vanderbilt family.
Silver, Burdett & Ginn will take the textbook chiefs and their families on a picnic one day, while McGraw-Hill will provide entertainment for the group’s annual banquet. Other meals will be paid for by such publishing houses as D.C. Heath, Macmillan and Houghton-Mifflin.
In a time of heightened awareness of possible conflict-of-interest situations and increased scrutiny of the ethical behavior of elected officials and civil servants, the National Assn. of State Textbook Administrators continues to allow publishers to subsidize their annual meetings, just as they have for at least 25 years.
The association includes the 23 states with statewide textbook adoption laws, including California. About 20 states are expected to be represented at this week’s meeting.
However, California’s representatives either do not attend the social functions or pay their own way.
“I think it’s important to model appropriate behavior,” said Glen Thomas, director of the Office of Curriculum Framework and Textbook Development in the state Department of Education. “I don’t want to be in a position where there are any other factors involved in how we do business. Somebody might say, ‘I did this for you, so how about doing something for me?’ ”
If the meal cost exceeds the state meal per diem, as it usually does, Thomas said he pays the difference personally.
Last month the state Board of Education adopted a code of conduct that points out it is a violation of state law for people involved in the evaluation or selection of textbooks, at either the local school district or statewide level, to accept money, meals, gifts or other “inducements” that might influence their decisions.
Dan Chernow, chairman of the state Curriculum Commission, said the relationship between textbook officials and publishers should be kept at arm’s length.
In past years, Thomas and other California textbook officials sometimes have eaten alone, while their colleagues were being wined and dined by textbook publishers. Now administrators from Florida and Texas also refuse to attend the social events, or insist on paying if they do.
“I don’t expect to attend many of the social gatherings,” Ira Nell Turman, director of the textbook division of the Texas Education Agency, said in a telephone interview. “If I do, I’ll pay my own way.”
There is no Texas law on the subject, Turman said, but “the understanding is very definitely there that we should not accept gifts from publishers.”
Thomas has proposed that the textbook officers’ organization do away with publisher-paid events and the issue will be discussed at the annual business meeting Tuesday. But interviews with officials from other states suggest that the practice will not change.
Bill Jarrett, western regional manager for the McGraw-Hill School Division, said subsidizing the annual textbook meeting is “good public relations.”
“I don’t think we view this as a golden sales strategy,” Jarrett said during a break in a Curriculum Commission meeting last week. “It’s something to show appreciation for the time these people take to schedule us.”
John Robberson, assistant superintendent of public instruction in Oklahoma, said textbook publishers pay for meals and other social activities at all sorts of educational meetings, all year long, and the gathering of textbook chiefs should be “no different.”
“The publishers invite people to these things and if they feel uncomfortable, they don’t have to attend,” Robberson said.
But Thomas said: “The fact that everyone else is doing it is not a reason to do it yourself.”
Samuel D. Bundy Jr., former coordinator of textbook services for North Carolina, said most state textbook chiefs could not be influenced by publishers because they have little or nothing to do with the selection of instructional materials.
In North Carolina, materials are selected by the State Textbook Commission, whose 15 members are appointed by the governor, Bundy said.
But in several states, including California, the top textbook administrator plays a major role in selecting members of the many panels that evaluate the books and is responsible for making sure that publishers live up to their contracts.
“It would not be appropriate for me to receive a meal or a gift from somebody I may be ultimately reviewing for contract compliance,” Thomas said.
But Oklahoma’s Robberson said: “I’m not ashamed of eating with one of these individuals. If he says, ‘Let’s sit down over dinner and talk about this,’ that doesn’t mean he’s bought any influence over me. . . . I take that as an insult to my integrity.”
“They may all be very honest people but how is the public supposed to know that? Chernow asked. “It’s a question of public perception. The whole process should be as clean as possible.”
Robberson accused California of hypocrisy on this issue.
Points to Honig
He said Bill Honig, California’s superintendent of public instruction, has attended publisher-paid social events at past national meetings of top school administrators and asked if Honig will “refuse an invitation to visit the Cowboy Hall of Fame or have dinner at the Petroleum Club (an exclusive private club) with some publishers” when the school chiefs meet in Oklahoma City this fall.
Honig said he does not plan to go to Oklahoma City but that he has attended some social events that were paid for by textbook publishers at past meetings of the school administrators.
“You’ve got this choice,” he said. “You can sit by yourself or you can go eat with the people you came to talk to.”
Honig said he has urged his colleagues from other states not to allow publishers to pay for meals and social events “but so far they haven’t seen fit to change.”
California has statewide adoption for textbooks used in kindergarten through 8th grade but not in senior high school. Local school districts in the state spend $200 million a year on textbooks, slightly more than 10% of the national market.