Published Online: February 19, 1997


Despite New Money, Districts Say Textbook Woes Are Chronic

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At Clara Barton High School in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, the average textbook costs about $45. The average student takes up to six classes a year.

Teachers and administrators there sometimes wonder what New York lawmakers learned in their math classes because the school, along with all the others in the state, gets only $36 annually per pupil from Albany to buy books. To compensate at Barton High, Principal Jerry Resnick must hunt for other funding sources or strike creative deals with textbook publishers.

"Anyone can do the math," Mr. Resnick said. "What does $36 buy you?"

Whether in New York or in schools elsewhere around the country, students huddle over age-worn textbooks and share supplies that have dwindled over the years. Students in some schools must rely on editions that are older than the students themselves and offer a view of the world before the Iranian hostage crisis and before the AIDS virus had an identity.

"Funding for books is pathetic," said Joan Griffin McCabe, a New York City Council member from Brooklyn. "We've been fighting for 30 years over school governance issues and paying little to, no attention to ... giving students the resources they need to do their job every day."

For years, the ups and downs of state education budgets and the changing political priorities of elected officials have put ever-increasing burdens on school districts to pay for classroom materials--or to make do with what they have.

Now, policymakers' demands that students meet stricter academic standards are heightening the need for districts to exchange their old volumes for new and better textbooks.

Other states share New York's textbook problems. District officials in Florida report that they must phase in new textbook adoptions over three years to spread out the cost.

And California teachers say they cannot use textbooks for homework assignments because there aren't enough current editions to go around.

A study conducted last year by the New York City-based Association of American Publishers found that two in five teachers said they did not have enough textbooks for their classes. "I have to scrounge, beg, borrow, or buy materials," wrote one of the 2,000 teachers who responded to the national survey.

Moreover, 25 percent of them said that the textbooks used in their classrooms were more than 10 years old.

Indeed, in some districts, they may even be older than some of the teachers. A 1993 audit by the New York City comptroller's office found that among the 700 textbooks used in 30 randomly selected city high schools, 30 percent were outdated, averaging 19 years old. Some of the books were worn by more than three decades of use.

In fact, only about one penny out of every dollar spent on elementary and secondary public education in the United States goes toward textbooks, with an average per-pupil expenditure of $41.60, according to the publishers' association survey.

Positive Signs

In some states and districts, though, the wind may finally be shifting. The New York City Council has made its first $12.5 million installment on a promised $50 million for new textbooks over the next four years, and Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has also added in this mayoral-election year a promise of $70 million more. In addition, Gov. George E. Pataki last month proposed doubling the state textbook allocation--to $72 per pupil--over the next four years.

"Sadly, in some classrooms of our state, the textbooks are older than the children reading them," the Republican governor said in his State of the State Address.

The latest round of support is welcome, but it is a temporary fix for a chronic problem, said Ms. McCabe, who is working on a proposal to require New York City to match the state's share.

Florida schools, meanwhile, have already gotten a boost in state textbook aid.

Free textbooks are guaranteed by the Florida Constitution, yet district textbook managers cannot remember the last time that books were adequately funded, according to Tom Morris, the president of the Florida Association of District Instructional Materials Administrators. Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, however, pushed a 33 percent increase through the last legislative session, raising funding to $138 million for the school year, and he is proposing a $156 million textbook budget for next year.

"This is the first year we've been elated in a long, long while," Mr. Morris said.

In Alabama, where the state had supplemented local funding to the tune of $50 a child, new reforms now require the state to pay for all textbooks for all students.

Conundrum in Indiana

Schools in a majority of states depend on at least some state aid to purchase textbooks. A survey the Indiana education department conducted last year found that 36 of the 48 states that responded provided such aid.

Indiana is one of the few that rely on parents to pay the tab. Each year, districts levy book fees on parents averaging $50 to $100 a child.

At first blush, the policy seems archaic, but officials say that it is the chief reason why Indiana has not experienced the widespread shortages and been saddled with the outdated texts that other states have.

Although Indiana does pay for books for students who qualify for a free school lunch, many families that do not meet income requirements claim that they cannot afford the fees. Districts have taken many defiant parents to small-claims court over the years, but few judges have forced them to ante up.

The conundrum for lawmakers is whether to pick up the whole tab to bail out financially strapped families at the risk of downgrading the textbook supply.

Indiana Democrats, with the support of Democratic Gov. Frank O'Bannon, have been pushing legislation to force the state to pay for instructional materials for all students. The money would come from the state's $1.6 billion budget surplus.

Republican lawmakers, however, are calling for full state funding only for those who already qualify--the students who receive free lunches. The state now allocates only $8 million of the $12 million needed to cover the students from low-income families.

In a state that has been conservative on public spending, but generally willing to pay for education initiatives, the issue has pitted some parents against opponents who fear that taxes would be increased once the surplus was depleted.

"I would guess that most of the families with young children are in a financial situation where the fees are a burden," said Barry Bull, the director of the Indiana Education Policy Center at Indiana University Bloomington. "That is what has made this a compelling political issue."

The Democrats' more costly proposal, which would require some $48 million beyond the existing program, concerns state education officials, who maintain that switching to a less reliable source of funding could threaten their textbook supplies and the hefty discounts publishers give to states that adopt new texts on regular cycles.

"We may have a surplus and enough revenue this year, but in future years, when times get tough, we may have to throw the responsibility back on the locals," said Terry E. Spradlin, a legislative liaison for the Indiana education department."We don't see this money improving education in a significant way. Students already have good-quality texts."

Extreme Measures

Teachers around the country often resort to extreme measures to compensate for missing materials. According to a 1993 survey by the Education Priorities Panel, a coalition of education groups in New York City, teachers sneak time at the school photocopier and have spouses and friends reproduce materials at work. One teacher even bought her own copier, said Noreen Connell, a spokeswoman for the group.

Often the copies cost more than the books themselves. Such practices may also violate copyright laws, which allow teachers single copies of an article or book chapter for research or teaching or student copies of a poem or short prose. The law, however, prohibits teachers from copying from workbooks or using copies as a substitute for purchasing textbooks.

But critics do not levy all the blame for the threadbare and dated texts on inadequate funding. School policies, they say, can contribute to the problem. For example, ineffectual penalties for students who fail to return books may cost schools millions of dollars each year. At Brooklyn's Clara Barton High alone, replacement books run $15,000 annually, Mr. Resnick said.

Reform of the textbook-buying process should not fall solely on state and local officials, say observers who believe that parents, students, and even publishers should do their part.

"There has to be an increased amount of funding," Mr. Resnick said. "Parents and students must be held accountable for the books they use." And "textbook companies need to look at their prices," the principal continued. "Perhaps they can print them in black and white or find other ways to cut the costs."

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