Opinion: Sudden exodus of textbook publishers should alarm Oklahomans

Lagging math outcomes indicate state needs increased access to high-quality materials

October 27, 2023 5:28 am

(Photo by Dan Forer/Getty Images)

Parents, business owners and taxpayers should be alarmed that qualified math textbook publishers no longer want to do business in Oklahoma.

Somehow Oklahoma’s education climate has become so abhorrent, controversial and politicized in the past year that companies specializing in teaching children how to count apples and bananas and calculate the shortest distance to grandma’s house no longer want to do business in the state.  

Book companies are apparently so aggravated with Oklahoma leaders’ ongoing battles against imaginary foes that they’re willing to walk away from multimillion-dollar contracts without blinking an eye. 

Oklahoma Voice reporter Nuria Martinez-Keel uncovered this week that eight math textbook companies have voluntarily withdrawn ahead of an expected vote next month. The state’s Textbook Committee is putting together an approved list of math books schools can purchase over the next six years. Initially 17 textbook companies had expressed interest.

While the departing companies didn’t cite a reason, observers noted the state’s normally benign textbook adoption process has faced pushback from conservatives concerned about the inclusion of social-emotional learning — and that the entire education system has become politicized.  

The day after the Oklahoma Voice first published its story, State Superintendent Ryan Walters put out a video on X, formerly known as Twitter, seeming to celebrate the departures. 

His message said that “some in the media” are acting as if textbook companies are leaving the state and implying that “because we’re actually enforcing that you can’t indoctrinate kids in our curriculum is somehow a bad thing for Oklahomans.” He said he wants to clear it up “for them.” 

Walters said he made it very clear to any textbook company that includes critical race theory, diversity, equity and inclusion, and “this radical sexual gender theory” in textbooks, they’re not going to do business in Oklahoma.

“So some of these woke companies got up and left, and that’s exactly what we said we were going to do,” Walters said. 

He suggested the publishers go to California. 

Let’s clear some things up for Walters. 

This is a sad situation for the over 700,000 children who attend Oklahoma public schools. 

Limiting access to high-quality educational materials not only affects their future, but also the lives of their teachers, their parents and Oklahoma’s business owners. The latter are understandably demanding that students graduate proficient in math and prepared to enter into high-demand careers in science, technology, engineering, math and health care. 

Oklahoma leaders should not be celebrating a mass exodus of qualified textbook publishers. The list includes reputable, well-known companies. 

Perhaps if more of our students were actually proficient at math, we could afford to be nonchalant about the departures and having fewer options on the table. But they’re not. 

In 2022, only 27% of Oklahoma fourth-grade students were deemed proficient in math by the National Center for Education Statistics. Our math outcomes were only higher than four other states or jurisdictions — New Mexico, West Virginia, Delaware and Washington D.C.  

Coincidentally, California, where Walters has urged textbook publishers to seek refuge, has a slightly higher percentage of students proficient in math. 

In Oklahoma, only 4% of Black students, 17% of Hispanic students and 24% of Native students were at or above proficiency.  

It’s safe to say that most Oklahomans are probably more worried about their child being able to actually complete basic math problems than about a fight over “woke indoctrination” in math textbooks. 

Until our academic outcomes improve, schools need more options to choose from, not fewer, and we should be doing everything we can to encourage as many high-quality companies as possible to invest in Oklahoma’s future.

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Janelle Stecklein
Janelle Stecklein

Janelle Stecklein is editor of Oklahoma Voice. An award-winning journalist, Stecklein has been covering Oklahoma government and politics since moving to the state in 2014.