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Textbooks. Social justice. Derby school debate reflects nationwide conflict

Textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published this statement on its website during protests over the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Derby school board president Michael Blankenship said companies should keep politics out of classrooms, and he voted against the purchase of an HMH social studies curriculum.
Textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published this statement on its website during protests over the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

The Derby debate mirrors controversies across the country, where library books, textbooks and other materials have become a target for conservative activists.

WICHITA, Kansas — Leaders of the Derby school district raised concerns this week about a textbook publisher for supporting Black Lives Matter and other anti-racism efforts.

The Derby Board of Education voted 5-1 to approve a seven-year contract with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for a new social studies curriculum for elementary students, at a cost of about $421,000.

But the vote followed a lengthy debate, during which several board members said they opposed a statement the company made in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

“We believe Black Lives Matter. We believe in social justice. We believe learning is a fundamental right,” the company said in a June 2020 message posted on its website. “We believe the education system needs to change, and we will continue to use our platform to make that change.”

Michael Blankenship, president of the Derby school board, voted no on the new curriculum because of that statement and other comments made by members of the company’s advisory board.

“I don’t think anybody changes something unless they see that it’s broken,” Blankenship said. “What needs to change? I personally don't want a company, even if they give educational materials, to want to come in and change Derby public schools.”

Michael Blankenship, Derby school board president
Derby USD 260
Michael Blankenship, Derby school board president

Derby administrators pushed for the new curriculum because elementary teachers have worked without social studies textbooks or other common materials for several years. A committee of teachers tested several options in classrooms and about two-thirds voted to recommend Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s “Into Social Studies” program.

Dana Jewett, a third-grade teacher at El Paso Elementary who served on the curriculum research committee, urged board members to approve the contract with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

“I would ask those citizens that have the questions: Do they know what their kids are learning in social studies right now? They can't. Because every classroom is learning something different,” Jewett said.

“We need you to be the leaders, to recognize the work and experience and the dedication that we have for our students. We need you to acknowledge and support those that have made this our profession.”

Blankenship’s campaign for the Derby school board last fall focused on what he described as elements of critical race theory making their way into public school lessons.

Earlier this year, he was one of several Derby school board members who opposed the broadcast of a video about white privilege during a staff meeting at Derby High School. Last year, he was one of two parents to sue the Derby district over its mask requirement.

Blankenship and some other board members said they disagreed with the social justice platform outlined by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a Boston-based publisher, and worried about politically charged classroom materials.

“There's things that find its way into curriculum that maybe somebody thinks is benign, but it's not,” said board member Robyn Pearman. “For me to feel real good about making this decision … I just want to have that warm-fuzzy that that curriculum stays benign.”

Officials with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt said the publisher stands by its June 2020 statement and continues to support efforts toward diversity, equity and inclusion.

“This statement was not a political one. Rather, the intent was to express our care and support for Black members of our community – teachers, students, families and employees,” company spokeswoman Leah Riviere said in an email.

She said the K-5 Into Social Studies curriculum aligns with Kansas standards for history, government and social studies.

“The program includes examples and images of people from diverse backgrounds and abilities in diverse roles and settings to help all students see how they can take part in society,” Riviere said. “HMH does not advocate for any ideology, political organization or agenda. … Our aim is simply to help teachers teach and students learn.”

Blankenship, the board president, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

During the board meeting, he said he liked sample classroom materials provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. But he said the company’s political stance remains an issue.

“I don’t think the company would be making those types of statements if it wasn’t in other material. So what material is it in?” he asked.

Vice president Jennifer Neel voted in favor of the contract but also voiced concerns about the publisher’s support of Black Lives Matter.

“This company needs to revisit how they handle things,” Neel said. “There's a lot of political turmoil, and a lot of companies made a lot of stupid statements in 2020 and probably should have been more neutral.”

The Derby debate mirrors controversies across the country, where library books, textbooks and other materials have become a target for conservatives.

The Florida Department of Education recently rejected 41% of its mathematics textbooks, claiming critical race theory appeared in some and citing “attempts to indoctrinate students.”

Several states, including Kansas and Missouri, have passed or considered Parents’ Bill of Rights laws, which call for school districts to post materials online and prohibit the teaching of certain concepts such as white privilege or gender identity.

During debate this week in the Kansas House, Rep. Pat Proctor, a Leavenworth Republican, cited what he said were examples of “nefarious brainwashing” of public school students.

“Teachers flying BLM flags and handing out the (Ibram X.) Kendi CRT stuff to be read to our kids. Highly charged, explicit, sexual comics in our library…. Teachers giving surveys to identify the political affiliation of our kids, asking, ‘Are you vaccinated? Are your parents vaccinated?’” Proctor said.

“These aren’t examples I went digging for. These are examples that parents in my district have raised to me.”

Derby curriculum director Holly Putnam-Jackson said the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt materials teachers reviewed were politically neutral.

She added that most major textbook publishers, including Discovery Education, McGraw Hill and Cengage, have posted similar statements about a commitment to diversity, equity and social justice.

“If we go by that as our gauge, we may find ourselves using coloring sheets” for classroom lessons, Putnam-Jackson said.

Tyrone Howard, education professor at UCLA
Tyrone Howard, education professor at UCLA

Blankenship also raised concerns about Tyrone Howard, a member of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s advisory board, who studies issues related to race and equity in the classroom.

“Do you think it’s a good thing that teachers teach all students the same — regardless of who they are, regardless of where they come from … or even the color of their skin? I think we could all probably agree that's a good place to start, right?” Blankenship said. “Well, not according to HMH. Not according to a member of their advisory.”

In an online post about racial literacy for teachers, Howard says, “A colorblind approach is part of the problem. … (It) says to students that you fail to see or acknowledge an integral part of who they are, their racial and ethnic background.”

Speculating about Howard’s role in developing curriculum materials, Blankenship said, “Personally, I think a lot of people out there probably wouldn’t like that.”

Board member Pam Doyle said leaders should judge potential curricula based on teachers’ input and the materials themselves, not on a company’s political leanings.

“We need to respect and honor the effort that the teachers have put in and respect that they're going to teach it in a way that is appropriate for our community,” Doyle said.

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.