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Pasco district says it followed rules in adoption of Dave Ramsey text, dismisses concerns

A woman speaks at a podium as a lawyer asks questions from the hearing room
Kerry Sheridan
The hearing lasted more than two hours and took place at Pasco school board headquarters in Land O'Lakes

A decision by the hearing officer is expected later in October.

Pasco County school officials said Tuesday they followed all policies and procedures when adopting a new financial literacy textbook by Christian finance guru Dave Ramsey. They also dismissed concerns by 57 members of the public who objected to the text’s use of Bible references and said it appeared to lack academic rigor.

At a hearing in the Land O’Lakes school board room, five members of the public came to speak. The district, on the other hand, came with a lawyer, several witnesses, and binders of documents that reflected how the district said it had complied with a host of state and county laws and education policies.

The hearing was held as part of a Florida law that allows any resident to file a petition objecting to the adoption of instructional materials. The hearing officer, Jim Robinson, a former school board attorney for Pinellas County, appeared via Zoom.

“Within 14 days, I will present a recommended order that addresses what I see in the findings of fact, conclusions of law and the recommendation to the school board as to how they should proceed on these objections,” Robinson said.

Vanessa Hilton, chief academic officer representing Pasco County schools, opened the meeting by pointing to what she described as a small number of objectors.

“The potential pool of persons that could object to subject materials would include 562,000 residents of Pasco County. Today we are here based on the 57 mostly duplicated petitions objecting to the curriculum, which is only slightly more than 1/10 of a percent of all who could actually have an objection,” Hilton said.

Those who objected, spoke about its use of language like “broke” and “busted,” its use of Bible references — to which Hilton pointed out there were “only six” — and its promotion of Ramsey’s personal views against debt.

Woman testifies at podium
Kerry Sheridan
Jessica Wright was among those who spoke against the adoption of the Ramsey textbook

They also questioned why school officials picked a textbook for a course that hasn’t been fully rolled out yet, referring to a new Florida law that requires all incoming freshmen in 2023-24 to take a half credit in financial literacy in order to graduate.

“I have to ask, what is the rush? We have free resources available,” said Jessica Wright, a former teacher and volunteer with the Florida Freedom to Read Project.

“We have several partners who would be more than willing to help and give us access to more materials. And statute even says such purchase must be made within the first three years after the effective date of the adoption cycle. You still have another two years to be in compliance. So why would we make a purchase of $600,000 that our teachers do not want?”

The district has not confirmed the cost for the Ramsey contract.

State-approved textbook

The Florida Department of Education put the Ramsey book, "Foundations in Personal Finance 4th edition," on its list of approved materials this year, just as the 2022 financial literacy course law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis takes effect.

Wright pointed out that the reviews of the textbook, made by a group known as a narrowing team convened in Pasco County — which included one parent and three school staff — were done for a course that is ending this school year, not for the new course.

“So how are we in compliance with statute, if our options are to either adopt from the state-approved list, or ensure that the material is aligned? How can the narrowing team in February ensure that a textbook is aligned for standards that haven't been published? How can a school site vote on material in April when the standards have yet to be published?” Wright asked.

Wright added that Pasco County updated what are known as “course codes” on its website, but did not acknowledge that the textbook had been reviewed when a prior, less rigorous course was in effect.

“I found it rather interesting that on the school website, the course codes suddenly changed to the updated ones with no word to the public. No, 'okay, we're going to have to re-review this for the new standards,' no acknowledgement. You just move forward as if there aren't an additional 16 standards in the graduation-required course for regular (level), and as if there aren't an additional 19 standards in the honors course,” said Wright.

A screenshot of the online materials show a white students smiling at cash in his wallet, below the words: "Debt is dumb, cash is king."
SCREENSHOT: Pasco Co Schools
A screenshot of the chapter four header in Ramsey's textbook

When the district made its case, school leaders said they picked from what the state was offering, as some schools started offering the new financial literacy course right away, in August 2023.

“What we know is that we have students who are enrolling in a graduation-required course. And we felt that it was our duty and obligation to ensure that we have resources and materials that are aligned to that course at that time,” said Lea Mitchell, director of the Office for Leading and Learning in Pasco County schools.

Mitchell said similar situations have occurred in other courses, and mentioned that when lawmakers in Tallahassee are making laws that affect education, it can happen in January and February, which is during the textbook adoption process.

“There [are] interesting, again, relatively counterintuitive processes that are in place where we have a set and established DOE textbook adoption, but our legislators are also potentially legislating new requirements,” Mitchell said.

The result is a logjam of sorts in July and August, with state board meetings, district board meetings, the rollout of an actual course description, and standards updates, such that courses can be updated after the start of school, she said.

“This is a phenomenon that is related to a variety of courses. I would say this year, it was this one course (financial literacy). In previous years, I think the year prior maybe, three or four math electives courses were in this exact same situation,” Mitchell said.

Narrowing team's role

A public records request filed by Wright yielded documents from the district that showed the narrowing team found many problems with the Ramsey textbook, and found it only partially met or did not meet a series of seven standards.

But those findings were not discussed in any detail on Tuesday, as the hearing focused largely on procedures that were followed.

Richard Batchelor, who was on that reviewing team, was asked if the team’s job was to recommend a text.

“No,” he said.

Instead, the team was tasked with picking the “best two out of three,” Batchelor said. Those were Ramsey’s textbook and another by Illinois-based textbook publisher Goodheart-Willcox, which did get higher ratings from the team than the Ramsey text.

Man in blue short and tie speaks at podium
Kerry Sheridan
Richard Batchelor is an assistant principal who was on the narrowing team.

Batchelor is an assistant principal at Land O’ Lakes High School. He said more than 200 freshmen are now taking the new financial literacy class, without a designated textbook.

“We're struggling. It's a new class. A new class is always hard to do. Resources are resources. The more you have the better. Having a textbook would definitely help. A textbook is not the end-all be-all for the class, but not having one, we're having to rely on hunting for resources to use,” Batchelor said at the hearing.

After the narrowing team did its work, a survey was sent to Pasco high schools in mid-April, asking which of those two books the school would pick.

Seven chose Ramsey, three chose Goodheart-Willcox, and four voted to wait until the standards were rolled out.

After the hearing, Batchelor said the Ramsey text would not have been his first choice, but being on the narrowing team, it was not about one person’s vote. He said seeing textbooks that aren’t adequate is a common problem these days.

Two representatives from Ramsey Solutions attended the hearing and sat in the audience, but declined to speak to reporters.

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.