Public school finance: Don’t waste this crisis!| OPINION

Look at a high school text book. Everything is first-class, or was when it was new. It’s tough, colorful, heavy and made to last. If you tried lugging a trade paperback to school and back every day it would be a mess of loose pages within a week or two. Library-rated bindings last longer but even they are no match for the durability of textbooks. Of course that level of quality costs a bundle so with school budgets in crisis you can be sure that school districts are squeezing one more year from nearly used up textbooks.

Ask kids about the textbook situation. They see classes without enough books to go around and if there are enough, some are pretty well trashed. Seven to eight years is the normal life for a textbook. That lifetime might cover 1,200 repetitions of being stuffed into backpacks, tossed under seats of school buses, paged through during homework time and then lugged back to school for the next day.

When county property tax collections slumped, schools found themselves cut off at the pockets. Schools can’t spend beyond their means so they have cut here, cut there, trimming every cost that’s trimmable, including textbooks. Yes, it’s a crisis, but as the old saying goes, never waste a crisis.

Can any good be found in the textbook crisis? It’s certain that something has to be done when existing stocks of textbooks fall short of covering all students, copy machines run short of paper and toner and orders for other learning resources are slashed because the money just isn’t there. No use crying about it. You have to deal with it.

There is reason to believe that budget deficits might force changes that actually improve education. Though the quality of instruction can’t help but suffer from cutting staff, reduced budgets for learning materials could possibly bring about tradition-breaking changes that would turn out for the better.

No doubt about it, textbooks have cost too much and weighed too much for a long time. As with big banks, big text publishers have bought out small ones until most textbooks are now printed by only three giants and that’s led to monopolistic pricing plus a dangerous concentration of editorial policy.

As to cost, Marysville pays $131.85 for an AP Chemistry text, $75.27 for U.S. History and $73.99 for Biology. Believe it or not, those are well below publishers’ sticker prices because school district buyers wring discounts from jobbers who stock textbooks. After the artful dickering is done, textbooks still remain outrageously pricey.

At the end of seven to eight-year replacement cycles, some of every district’s textbooks come up for replacement. At least that used to be the plan. Oak Harbor just announced it won’t be replacing 10-year-old K-12 science texts as planned. The money isn’t there.

Some districts are testing ways to eliminate textbooks. Vail, Colorado and Florence, Arizona, shelved textbooks and bought each student a laptop to search out and store course content. The cost per student was $450, $100 less than one student’s books. Of course that saving won’t hold up when maintenance and replacement are factored in. For a cheaper option, imagine students downloading an entire curriculum onto e-readers like Kindles, Nooks, or iPads. The question is, will tests show that such web-based learning materials deliver positive results.

Free substitutes for textbooks are now available. They’re called Open-Source materials and they are gaining popularity among innovative districts. Open-source texts seem to have first surfaced in South Africa where teachers founded a project known as FHSST, or Free High School Science Texts. Their collaborative effort produced study units that subscribing teachers adapted, enhanced and shared. As an example of the energy behind the movement, one early FHSST text was edited on the web in nine days by 100 teachers from nations around the globe. That text is free and can be updated at any time.

The movement has spread. Check out California Open Source Textbook Project, flatworldknowledge, Open Education Resources, Connexions, CK-12, ISKME, CCCOTC, Merlot and MIT’s Open Sourceware. Backing comes from heavyweights like Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales and the Gates Foundation.

Connexions is a good one to watch. Spearheaded by Scott McNealy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, Connexions produces unit-sized modules that school districts cut-and-paste into near-perfect fits for their needs. Because free digital files can be edited by users, the fit can be further refined. One district’s web course lists optional $20 black and white and $60 color versions in print. Blaine, Minnesota turned down a bid for $200,000 for a new Statistics text, opting instead for a digital teacher-written course. After factoring in payment for teacher-authors, savings were nearly $175,000.

Wanting performance data, the state of Utah sponsored a two-stage study to determine (a) a realistic estimate of savings, and (b) results, as measured on standardized tests. Results may be published by the end of this school year.

Scattered test results generally show improvement with test scores strongly suggesting that the use of collaboratively compiled open-source texts do significantly improve both teaching and learning. It seems that every budget-crippled school district should be taking a close look at this.

Comments may be addressed to robertgraef@comcast.net.


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