Group Seeks Reasons for Textbook Shortage in L.A.

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Prompted by reports of students who either have no textbooks or must share them with several classmates, a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles is convening a panel to probe how schools in the nation's second-largest district buy, distribute, and keep track of texts.

The California Community Foundation announced the new citizens' advisory panel as part of an initiative it launched last month to tackle textbook shortages in the 670,000-student Los Angeles district. Starting with an immediate gift of $200,000 to help five city schools buy books, the group also has begun a campaign to raise as much as another $1 million to help schools districtwide.

Organizers said the effort was, in part, triggered by recent Los Angeles Times reports about chronic shortages of textbooks in many of the system's schools.

"At some schools, it was a pretty acute situation where they're short by 35 to 50 percent of the books they need," Virgil Roberts, the foundation's vice chairman, said. "When you're short that number of books, forget about homework."

Although California is a textbook-adoption state for grades K-8, in which schools must choose most of their books from a list of state-approved materials, districts do not necessarily receive full funding for all the authorized textbooks they buy. And while the state specifically earmarks a portion of its aid to districts for instructional materials, some Los Angeles school groups say those funds haven't kept pace with textbook price inflation.

A 1995 state-by-state survey by the New York City-based Association of American Publishers showed California ranked 47th in its per-pupil spending on textbooks.

As the Los Angeles Times reports showed, the shortage seems to be worse in California's urban districts, where students in some schools are forced to use class time to copy or read material they would have gone over at home.

In the wake of the newspaper reports, schools Superintendent Ruben Zacarias pledged that all students in his system would have their own textbooks. Earlier this fall, he initiated his own study of how his schools spend their money for instructional materials.

Not Just Money

Despite schools' undeniable fiscal constraints, foundation officials say several factors appear to be conspiring to create the shortages.

"It's clear that it's not just an issue of money," said Allan Parachini, a spokesman for the foundation. "It's also an issue of how the money is spent."

The district eliminated a central-office division that oversaw textbook purchasing and distribution several years ago, and school reforms have kept the process by which books are purchased decentralized.

At buildings with high student-mobility rates, many textbooks also disappear each year as students transfer from school to school. The district's Crenshaw High School addressed the problem by charging students a $50 deposit for textbooks, only to be told by district officials last month that the practice violates the state constitution. The school is now refunding the deposits to parents.

The new advisory committee includes the head of the city's teachers' union, representatives of local businesses and colleges, and leaders of the city's biggest school reform effort, the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, or LEARN. Foundation officials said the committee also will include at least one district administrator.

The group will meet for the first time next month, with the intention of making a series of recommendations by next summer.

Despite hopes of bringing more efficiency to the textbook-procurement process, school improvement advocates believe the advisory committee's work will show the shortage cannot be solved without a greater public investment.

"The problem is that California has been underfunding its schools for so long that something's had to give," said Peggy Funkhouser, the executive director of the Los Angeles Educational Partnership, a local foundation.

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