Publishers struggle to sell textbooks amid culture wars over education

The people who make and sell textbooks are not having a good summer.

For many educational publishing companies and book sellers, sales are plunging as districts shy from purchasing content they fear might fall afoul of state laws restricting education on race, sex and gender — or draw complaints amid a historic surge in book challenges. Meanwhile, frazzled firms are spending months negotiating with education departments, politicians and school officials to ensure the books they sell won’t leave them imprisoned, slapped with onerous fines or banned from doing business in a state under the raft of new legislation.

“Sales are way down for everybody. This is the worst it’s ever been,” said Ben Conn, who heads the Educational Book and Media Association, which has nearly 200 members nationwide. “It’s very difficult to be an educational book vendor right now.”

The education culture wars — the fierce debates over how students should learn about race, history, sex and gender — are hitting the staid world of K-12 publishing, according to interviews with industry leaders and thousands of pages of correspondence between publishers and state officials reviewed by The Washington Post. The political clashes are remaking the industry.

In Texas, publishers and sellers must spend the next year screening every book they’ve sold to public school districts in order to recall any “sexually explicit” titles — defined as material that “describes, depicts, or portrays sexual conduct … in a way that is patently offensive” — under a law signed June 13. In Tennessee, book publishers, distributors and sellers who provide “obscene” material to schools could face six years in jail and a roughly $100,000 fine, per a law that took effect July 1.

Is your school seeing book challenges? Tell The Post.

And in Florida, textbook publishers weary from last year’s contentious back-and-forth with the Education Department over allegedly racist content in math textbooks are now fighting over social studies textbooks. The department rejected more than 30 such tomes this spring and sought edits to an additional 47, partly in compliance with a year-old state law that prohibits making students feel “guilt, anguish, or … psychological distress” because of their race during lessons about America’s past.

Conservative analysts contend the scrutiny of educational materials such as textbooks is a much-needed corrective to the liberal views that have come to shape instructional texts over the past few decades — for example, mandating that such books be politically correct or overly focused on the views and feelings of minorities, to the exclusion of other parts of history. And some argue that measures such as the Texas and Tennessee laws are necessary to eradicate a rash of inappropriate books.

“We wouldn’t allow a paint vendor to sell lead paint to be used in a classroom, we wouldn’t allow a food vendor to sell spoiled food in a cafeteria,” said Texas Rep. Jared Patterson (R), who filed the law banning sexually explicit school books. “We shouldn’t allow book publishers to put radically explicit sexual content in the hands of children.”

The ever-thornier landscape is forcing lengthy exchanges over minutiae, like the conversation between a McGraw Hill executive and the Florida Department of Education in early 2022. In emails obtained by the nonprofit American Oversight group and provided to The Post, the executive for McGraw Hill emailed asking about a new requirement for Florida K-12 social studies materials: that “primary source documents … be included and unedited.”

The McGraw Hill executive wanted to know what that entailed.

“What does ‘unedited’ mean? Does it mean that we must include the entire primary source?” the executive wrote. “If we are allowed to use excerpts, what constitutes editing? For example, can we use ellipses?”

The executive noted that treaties, legislation and Supreme Court cases could all be considered primary sources, as could Victor Hugo’s 1,500-page novel “Les Misérables.”

“Do we need to include the actual text of all these items?” the executive wrote.

The Florida Education Department does not appear to have responded directly, per the email records; a staffer forwarded the queries to two superiors. McGraw Hill declined to comment on the exchange, and the Florida Education Department did not respond to requests for comment.

All of this has forged a poisonous environment unlike anything the industry has seen, said an executive at a major firm, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from states where the company is still trying to sell textbooks. The executive described complicated, tense negotiations with education departments and school officials. The executive declined to discuss sales at their company, which sells digital learning platforms and textbooks, but said schools are deferring purchases right now because of political considerations.

“Educational decisions are being made out of fear of political reprisal instead of out of adherence to a curriculum,” the executive said.

Changing content, shifting scrutiny

It is not new for school instructional materials to face criticism — especially in states that require education agencies to approve textbooks before districts can use them. Almost two dozen states do so, according to the Education Commission of the States, including Texas and California.

But feedback used to be lower-key, said Donald Ritchie, former historian of the U.S. Senate who has been writing history textbooks since 1974 for McGraw Hill, one of America’s “big three” educational publishers alongside Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Savvas Learning Company. Ritchie recalled a husband-wife duo in Texas — Mel and Norma Gabler, conservative parents who formed a nonprofit to scrutinize textbooks in the 1970s and 1980s — who pored over the books his publisher provided before suggesting edits. The process felt more mom-and-pop, literally, than current controversies.

“It’s become much more front-page, [and] it has ratcheted up,” Ritchie said. “Whenever a state legislature enacts a law, that is making it something different than the private scrutiny that was going on, with critics coming before school boards to argue for or against books. It’s a much more major issue.”

One reason for the blowback, Ritchie said, may be that history textbooks have shifted over the years. Books nowadays incorporate more “minority groups, women, African Americans, Indian and Native Americans, all of whom were really on the periphery,” he said. He recalled a 1968 textbook that mentioned just two women by name: Queen Isabella I of Castile and American activist, social worker and suffragist Jane Addams.

Ritchie thinks these changes are for the good. But to others, some of these revisions — especially those devoted to uglier chapters of American history, such as the Trail of Tears or the Japanese incarceration camps — represent an abdication of the responsibility to bring up patriotic, positive young Americans.

Denise Nystrom, a former school administrator who volunteers with right-leaning education advocacy group the Florida Citizens Alliance, coordinated a review of 39 social studies textbooks submitted this year to the state’s education department for approval. Nystrom worked with 69 volunteers who underwent Alliance-provided trainings on how to spot errors, omissions, slants, biases and “critical race theory,” a conservative catchall for instruction about race deemed politically motivated — and which Nystrom defined as teaching that “inherent in our systems is automatic White privilege and the notion there should be a redistribution of wealth so everyone has access to wealth.”

She said reviewers found troubling stuff: too much focus on slavery, too many examples of “something negative that occurred to somebody that was Black” and implications that Americans are racist. In a final report, the Alliance concluded: “It was as though white people were left out of the textbooks unless they were characterized as the people that brought disease and tortured the Native American Indians and slaves.”

Setting aside textbooks, other kinds of educational titles sold to schools — known as “trade books” — have changed, said Conn of the Educational Book and Media Association. An example of a trade book, also known as a course book, might be a title about 1600s-era America that an English teacher would assign as supplemental reading to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.”

More trade books now have material about hot-button topics, such as trans identity, that some might find objectionable, Conn said. He said thousands of books for school come out every year and “there’s always 1 percent [of authors] who want to push the envelope,” Conn said.

Plus, he said, a post-coronavirus pandemic slump in student literacy and reading interest seemed to temporarily stir school demand for hyper-engaging books: “Our customers were saying, ‘Our kids aren’t reading, we’ll bring in any type of literature that gets kids to read.’”

Not anymore. Not only are school officials refusing to buy books, but some publishers and vendors are no longer willing to sell them.

For example, Conn said, Texas’s new law forbidding sexually explicit materials has inspired a new policy at the K-12 bookselling firm he heads, Classroom Library Company. “We don’t want to be banned and we don’t want to carry liability,” he said. “So we’re just going to stop selling in Texas. That’s it.”

Publishers ‘desperate’ for clarity

Alongside a shift in instructional materials, the tone and quality of conversations between publishers and state agents has changed, too, according to industry insiders and thousands of pages of emails read by The Post.

Confused publishers are sending messages at all hours, hoping for clarity on statewide policies, textbook rejections and edits.

“We would like to request any information you can share as to the reasons for the decision not to adopt our submissions,” a representative for Savvas Learning Company wrote to the Florida Education Department in April 2022, in response to the rejection of some of its math textbooks. “Can you please provide … a list of any objectionable content.”

“Could we have a meeting” about a math textbook that “did not make the state’s recommended list?” someone with Math Nation wrote to the department that same month. “It’s causing enormous disruption with school districts. We will make ourselves available 24/7.”

“I apologize for all the questions,” wrote a representative for Cengage Group around the same time, “we are just trying to move as quickly as we can on this. If need be, we can chat live as well! Thanks so much in advance for your time!”

The Florida Education Department, which did not comment on the exchanges, sometimes replied by arranging video or phone calls or by sharing portions of its findings about textbooks. Most publishing companies declined or did not respond to questions about communications with the department.

Cengage wrote in a statement that “we anticipate collaboration and communication with education departments, and have built that into our timeline and process.” Savvas Learning Company wrote in a statement that Florida ultimately “placed our entire … Mathematics program for grades K-12 on the state’s recommended list of math curricula.”

Provided these exchanges, a longtime former employee of McGraw Hill, Jeff Livingston, said he was astonished.

“I never had to say, ‘I’ll come and see you no matter what time you want, I just need some feedback.’ I never had to be that desperate,” said Livingston, who now works as an educational consultant. “It’s the confusion that’s new. And the desperation in trying to reach clarity.”

It’s not just happening in Florida. At least four states — Arkansas, Virginia, North Dakota and Mississippi — this spring launched reviews of an Advanced Placement African American studies course to see if it conflicted with policies or laws restricting the teaching of race, The Post reported.

And, the anonymous executive at the textbook company said, other states are undertaking novel, intensive examinations of educational materials, in part by mandating more “community reviews” of educational books and textbooks before schools and school districts can purchase the material.

That means “they put the titles up for consideration at the community library or community college, and any individual can access them and submit their own critique of that title,” the executive said.

In at least one state that wound up rejecting some of his company’s textbooks last year, the executive said, negative community reviews appear to have played a role. The state consistently refused to answer questions about the rejection from the company, the executive said. The executive declined to name any of the states.

The vox populi nature of such reviews mirrors the makeup of Nystrom’s textbook review committee, which included people “from all walks,” she said, many without educational backgrounds. Nystrom said the Citizens Alliance advised the Education Department to spurn 21 social studies textbooks and edit 16 others. But the department approved 19 of the 21 texts the alliance recommended against, Nystrom said, and she does not know the fate of the group’s proposed edits. The department did not respond to questions about the episode.

That’s a new element too, Livingston said: “Now you have people who are very far removed from teaching and learning in the classroom … having far more influence on the actual process than they used to.”

Adding to publishers’ woes, blue states are wading into the fray. On May 20, the office of California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) tweeted a demand for “records from publishers and Florida to find out whether any of the companies designing California’s textbooks are the same ones kowtowing to Florida’s extremist agenda.” The anonymous publishing executive called Newsom’s tweet “just a different political actor, looking for different political gains, in this hyper-political environment we’re all stuck in.”

Things will only get worse in polarized America, said Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute: Trying to produce content acceptable in blue and red states will feel like “steering between Scylla and Charybdis.”


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