$64 million for out-of-date and educationally generic textbooks? Here’s a new approach.
In our relentless exploration of ways to reduce non critical spending and reform how state government operates, sometimes the most crushing barriers to systems change are not special interest lobbies, campaign contributors, bureaucrats or other nefarious if stereotypical suspects. Sometimes the real barriers are simply driven by our own discomfort with change, an unwillingness to think and act in new ways, a recognizable preference for the status quo. For whatever psychological reason you prefer to analyze, I’m intellectually, emotionally and politically disposed to tackling these big ‘system’ issues.
For the past few months I’ve been learning a great deal about the $8 billion textbook industry in the United States.
As far as I can figure out, the State of Washington sends $64,344,99.66 from Olympia to our 295 school districts per year to outfit our 1,034,153 students with textbooks. That does not include millions more that local school districts spend from local levies.
Adi, my 9th grade daughter at Ballard High School, has a pile of old-style textbooks that she couldn’t carry in one haul if she tried: A 300-page World History book from 1998 that has less than 20 pages from 1945-1998 with many of them large photos; an introduction to biology; introduction to French; Geometry and numerous other smaller books. Each of them cost taxpayers, at minimum, $120 or more. So on my own kitchen table alone is easily $500 in textbook costs to taxpayers.
And each of them are by their very nature out of date, expensive, static and educationally generic.
I have written many times about the broader movement toward Open Educational Resources, an effort to use open courseware that is licensed to share and build upon a collaborative model. The U.S. Department of Labor, and many other federal agencies, along with the Gates Foundation and other key players, have embraced the core idea that tax or donor dollars used to create materials should be openly licensed for the public to access that information. The default policy should be ‘open’ not ‘closed,’ collaborative not proprietary and accessible not restricted. There will be some exceptions in the context of non public dollars, and some flexibility is necessary logistically and structurally, but the core idea is grounded in the philosophical idea that the public paid for it and should benefit freely from it.
Most of my efforts have to date been focused on higher education. Lately, however, I’ve been exploring in depth the range of policy options around K-12 textbooks and what the state can do to better serve students, teachers and equally important taxpayers.
Fortunately, there is a path forward.
I plan to introduce comprehensive legislation in 2012 to change the state of Washington’s model with respect to K-12 textbooks. Rather than blindly sending $64 million to 295 districts as a general model without regard to content, quality or other factors, I propose that we hold back a small piece of that allocation in order to access the highest quality Open Educational Resources in the world and train our teachers, administrators and districts how to access this extraordinary and extremely low cost resource. The details will be announced closer to the January legislative session.
But one element of this plan to keep in mind: The State of Washington has embraced Common Core Standards. This means that so many of the Open Educational Resources being developed in the U.S. and around the world are already designed, from scratch, to meet those standards. So the ‘customization’ needed in Washington is modest at best.
All of this doesn’t even touch on the possibilities of e-textbooks and partnerships with Kindle, iPad, Tablet PC, Droid and other such evolutions of delivery mechanisms.
The apple to apple comparison of cost, per textbook, will be about $6 for Open Education Resources instead of $120-plus for proprietary, commercial textbooks. For my daughter’s Geometry, World Literature, Biology and other courses, the total cost will hover around $24 instead of $500. Why $6? That’s about the cost of photocopying the pages into an open textbook. And our friends from Utah present some compelling data that even suggest the product itself works better. The content is, by an large, free. Let’s say, for the sake of making it interesting, that I’m off by 3x and the true cost is $72 to incorporate additional costs of training districts. When you have 1,034,153 students in total and a very large number of them in 6-12 grades where textbooks are most prevalent, that amounts to real savings.
Washington won’t categorically eliminate all K-12 and higher education textbooks without regard to depth, value and role. And local districts will always have options to make local decisions if they want to pay out of pocket. This is about a carrot not a stick policy approach. There is some value in some sectors of specialized approaches and, of course, higher education is a bit more nuanced than grades 6-12. There is indeed some legitimate value in the depth of institutional knowledge, content and experience that the textbook industry brings to the table. As a member of the budget-writing Ways & Means Committee, I’m just not willing to spend $64 million per year for it.
I’m convinced the proposal is sound fiscal, policy and educational policy. What do you think?
Your partner in service,