Curriculum

California Textbook Bills Reach Governor

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — September 23, 2004 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 5 min read
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Corrected: This article incorrectly said that publishers objected to a bill in California that would have put restrictions on the pricing of textbooks. Publishers dropped their opposition to AB 2455, which the governor vetoed on Sept. 30, 2004, after several changes addressing their concerns were incorporated into the final version. Also, California districts cannot negotiate their own deals on textbooks, as the article suggested. Prices are set before the state school board approves the texts.

California school districts could see lower textbook prices and gain more control over choosing instructional materials for their classrooms, under legislation on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk.

Legislation could lower costs for districts, provide more flexibility

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger

Two bills, which will become law unless the Republican governor vetoes them in the coming weeks, could have a significant effect on the state’s textbook-adoption process as well as influence textbook development for districts far and wide. California is the largest market for educational publishers, with some $400 million spent on such materials annually, so its content requirements weigh heavily in the crafting of textbooks nationwide.

By law, California’s state school board must review texts for grades K-8 and provide a list of those that are approved for purchase with state money. But the board is only allowed to base its decisions on the materials’ alignment to the state content standards in a given subject.

One of the pending measures, AB 2455, would allow the state to place a cap on the price of a textbook, a factor the state board currently cannot consider in its review. The second bill would allow districts to adopt books that were not on the approved list provided they could make a case to the state board for their quality.

“The current adoption process leaves districts with very few options, and it leads to a near monopoly market for the publishers who get their materials adopted, . . . and has an inflationary effect on the price of textbooks,” said Rick Pratt, the assistant executive director of the California School Boards Association, which proposed the second bill, SB 1380. The group also supports AB 2455.

Money Matters

Top state education officials and textbook publishers alike oppose the measures, and have asked the governor to veto them.

Jack O’Connell, the state’s superintendent of schools, argued in a letter to Mr. Schwarzenegger this month that the proposed price caps, in particular, would force additional monitoring responsibilities on the state and cost more in the long run.

“This would require the state board of education to conduct an extensive cost survey of instructional materials in other states and factor in the evaluation criteria required by the [board] in a given adoption to determine ‘reasonable prices,’ ” he wrote Sept. 3. “These attempts at cost containment are laudable; however, as conceived in this proposal, they will result in additional administrative costs both at the state and local levels.”

To carry out the additional review, Mr. O’Connell wrote, the state would have to hire two additional employees.

But Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla, who sponsored the bill to give the state board power to negotiate better prices, said the potential to save millions in textbook costs easily cancels out the salaries, which, with benefits, could add up to $200,000.

Mr. O’Connell further argued, however, that the change could also lead to disputes between school officials and publishers.

“Districts will complain if the prices are not low enough, and industry will protest if prices are not high enough,” the letter says. “No government agency has successfully controlled prices, and the department has no expertise in determining what the appropriate price is for instructional materials.”

The pricing legislation was prompt ed by articles in the San Jose Mercury News in late 2002. The two-part series in the California newspaper reported on the rising cost of textbooks. It also questioned whether the state could make better use of its leverage with publishers, who often depend on gaining a stake in the lucrative California market.

State officials have argued that they do not have the same bargaining power as some states, such as Texas, that buy the texts in bulk and distribute them to districts. California sends money for textbooks directly to districts, which in turn can negotiate their own deals with publishers.

The Senate bill, proposed by state Sen. Martha M. Escutia, a Democrat, seeks to help districts get around the often-restrictive state adoption law. Although the law requires the state board to choose at least five textbooks in each subject, it has not always done so. The current list of approved reading series for grades K-3, for example, has just two selections.

That bill, though, does not go as far as a previous proposal that would have given local teachers bargaining power on academic issues, such as textbook adoption. The measure, which was introduced in 2002 but not passed, would have extended the scope of contract negotiations to “the development and implementation of any program designed to enhance pupil academic performance,” including standards and curriculum, textbooks, and assessments. (“Calif. Bill Would Allow Unions More Say on Academics,” March 6, 2002.)

Backdoor Approach?

Mr. Canciamilla, a Democrat, said last week that he is hoping to introduce additional legislation next year that would “go further in opening up options for the use of alternative educational materials and getting away from being restricted to high-cost texts.”

Publishing-industry representatives argue that giving districts more freedom to use state money on unapproved texts would weaken the state adoption process and lead to choices of materials that do not adhere to rigorous academic standards in given subjects.

Creating a “backdoor ‘adoption’ process, [SB 1380] would hurt students and teachers,” Dale F. Shimasaki, a lobbyist in Sacramento for the Association of American Publishers, wrote in a letter to the governor. “If the adoption requirements could be bypassed simply by convincing a single school district to champion a program, there would be little incentive to risk millions developing California-specific programs and submitting to the rigor of the normal adoption-review process.”

Gov. Schwarzenegger’s chance to veto the pricing bill expires next month. He has until Sept. 30 to take action on the textbook-adoption-flexibility measure.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has not revealed his intentions on high-profile textbook bills.

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