Textbook case in Alabama touches deeper issues. Texts found OK, but many parents say `mediocrity' in schools is the issue

Children returning to school in Alabama next week will have their textbooks back. This follows a ruling Wednesday by an Atlanta federal appeals court that overturns United States District Judge Brevard Hand's order last spring to ban 44 books for promoting ``secular humanism.''

The decision - and one earlier in the week by a Cincinnati federal appeals court dismissing the publicized ``Tennessee textbook case'' - is not surprising, experts say. The constitutional right of state and local school boards to set curricula and choose textbooks is firmly established.

But many educators say the legal ruling masks a deeper unrest among a broader range of parents about the lack of coherent content and values in public schools. Textbooks provide the most visible evidence of this, they say.

``It's reassuring to see the courts uphold state and local rights,'' says Caroline Cody of the University of Maryland, ``but the fact is, we've lost a consensus in this country about what we want schools to do - and that isn't going to go away.''

``Courts don't deal in philosophy, and this is a philosophy case,'' says textbook expert Harriet Tyson. ``Free exercise and establishment clauses aren't the real issue - it's the bland, mediocrity of schools. And it's cultural. I'd be unhappy no matter how these two cases came out.''

The issue goes back to the 1960s, when the traditional, white, middle-class establishment world view imparted in schools and textbooks broadened to include women, minorities, and nontraditional reading texts. But as the books turned to formula writing and commercial appeal in the 1970s, they lost a ``value consensus.''

``The fundamentalists were sensitive to that,'' says Dr. Cody.

Bob Sherling, lawyer for the 600 Alabama parents and teacher who brought the initial suit, said the setback was ``just a step on the way to the Supreme Court.''

``I don't suspect the Supreme Court is going to hear the case,'' says Ricki Seidman, spokesperson for People for the American Way, the liberal Washington lobby. ``The [Atlanta] decision was a carefully researched view that follows established precedent. It upholds the constitutional right of children, as well as local school boards.''

The new decisions may force fundamentalists to argue their case in a civil rights framework, some experts say. The Hawkins County, Tenn., school board argument of ``inconvenience'' for not offering different reading material to children is weak, they say - considering that for 25 years school districts have daily pulled low-income kids out of class for remedial work.

``I've seen principals bend over backwards, fight, lie, cheat, and disrupt classes in countless ways to get Title 1, 2, and 5 federal money,'' says Ms. Tyson. ``To argue `inconvenience' is hypocritical.''

Cody says the decisions ``force'' the issues to be solved by greater citizen participation in local school boards. ``It's the American way. It's messy - but the best way we have.''

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