When it comes to the sensitive issue of selecting textbooks, state education officials try to walk a fine line between making sure that books purchased are not offensive and giving local districts as much leeway as possible to make their own choices.
Although California's Department of Education has the responsibility to make sure that books are consistent with certain social content laws--so they do not proselytize for a religion or reinforce stereotypes, for instance--the state sets few other restrictions on how schools can spend about a third of the textbook money it doles out.
And there are virtually no restrictions on what books can be used by charter schools--such as the one now proposed in Los Angeles by educators hoping to give students textbooks inspired by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
State officials said this week that although a charter school cannot be tied to a religion, and cannot proselytize for any faith, it would be free to buy the Hubbard books or any others.
Conventional schools are not given quite that much freedom, but "we definitely want local districts, schools and boards to have as much flexibility as possible in choosing materials for their students," said Ruth McKenna, the state's chief deputy superintendent of public instruction. "It is their decision, their authority."
It's still unclear, though, whether conventional schools will be able to use the books based on Hubbard's principles, which are designed to help students develop study skills.
The publishers received some encouragement last week when they were told that the books had been given preliminary state approval after being examined for their social content by a citizen review panel.
But after McKenna and state schools chief Delaine Eastin reviewed the books this week, they said that the texts need substantial revisions.
Some revisions have nothing to do with Scientology. McKenna said the books must have pictures of disabled and minority students and change their representation of men and women. "They need to put men and women in comparable roles," she said. "The boys are going to the computer lab in these books and the girls are baking."
So-called core textbooks must go through a more rigorous examination to make sure math books, for example, include all the topics that the state has decided students should learn. At least 70% of state textbook funds must be spent on such core books. But the other 30% can be spent on the supplemental books, which merely need to achieve legal compliance. Officials emphasize that clearing the hurdle does not mean the state has endorsed a book--merely that schools are free to buy it.
In that process, 20-member citizen review panels--representing different ethnic, religious and age groups--examine the books page by page against 13 criteria. Those panels are appointed jointly by the state Education Department and the Office of Education in a rotating series of counties.
"We really want people from all walks of life," said Caroline Roberts, a consultant with the Education Department. "We want people who are sensitive to various issues to help us out. What I look at and find OK may offend somebody else."
In addition, books getting approval as supplemental materials can neither promote nor ridicule any religion. State education department guidelines say that "any explanation or description of a religious belief or practice should be presented in a manner that neither encourages nor discourages belief or indoctrinates the student in any particular religious belief."
After reviewing books against the criteria, the panels can ask publishers to make changes--to make sure, for instance, that no group is stereotyped.
If the publisher makes the changes requested, the works are included in a 2-inch-thick catalog that lists tens of thousands of books. "You name it, it might be in here," Roberts said.
On occasion, a book that has passed "legal compliance" will still anger the public. Several years ago, parents of Middle Eastern background in the Los Angeles area complained that reading textbooks pictured people from that part of the world around tents or camels.
The parents' concern was relayed to the state Education Department, which passed it on to the publisher. The publisher agreed to make changes.
The state's review process does not apply to literature books, or books for grades nine through 12, which are reviewed locally by each school board. Disputes at that level are still common, with parents sometimes objecting that books such as "Catcher in the Rye" are inappropriate for students.
The greater freedom given charter schools--which conceivably could use all their book money on non-approved texts--is designed to encourage alternatives to mainstream schools. Even the charter schools, though, are prohibited from promoting any religion or discriminating in admissions.