That’s one of many takeaways of my textbook research so far. I guess to many people this is no surprise, but it seems crazy to me. Knowledge of what is going on inside schools strikes me as the most basic function of the district office. And yet I would estimate around 10% of the districts that have responded to my FOIA requests have said they have no documents listing the textbooks in use, and probably another 30-50% clearly have to invent such a document to satisfy my request . Instead, I get a lot of letters like this:
Thank you for using the [district name] FOIA Center.
The FOIA office has been advised by the appropriate departments that the records you seek are not kept in the normal course of business. That is, a full and complete list of all mathematics and science textbooks currently in use by grade and the year the textbook was first used. As written, this request is categorical and unduly burdensome in nature and would require extensive resources to both search for information, which would most likely require a manual school by school search, and analysis to determine the other data points you are seeking. For these reasons, [district] is denying this request pursuant to [state statute] and invites you to narrow your request to manageable proportions. If [district] does not receive a revised request from you within five (5) business days of this response, this request will be closed.
Apparently to many folks this kind of arrangement is just fine–school sites should be able to decide all this stuff themselves. I can buy the argument that schools should have autonomy over curriculum materials (though I doubt that’s very efficient or good for kids), but even if you believe that’s the case, shouldn’t the district at least track how their money is being spent?
This is one of the research questions that’s emerged over time as I’ve gone through this textbook project, and it’s something I’ll investigate just as soon as I finish this round of FOIAs. My hypothesis? I suspect Ilana Horn is right about the consequences of this kind of non-leadership by districts:
I hope we’re wrong, but I doubt it.
 Districts don’t actually have to do this under the letter of FOIA law. So I very much appreciate the efforts.
This study is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1445654 and the Smith Richardson Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this study are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the funders.