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$64 million for out-of-date and educationally generic textbooks? Here’s a new approach.

October 14, 2011

Rep. Carlyle at the "Textbook Rebellion" rally at University of Washington

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And each of them are by their very nature out of date, expensive, static and educationally generic.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.

I’ve blogged about this issue a number of times here and here.

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,


20 Comments leave one →
  1. Fred M Beshears permalink
    October 14, 2011 6:27 pm

    According to the General Accounting Office, college students spend around $800 a year on textbooks.

    “According to data from Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, first-time, full-time students attending 4-year private, nonprofit colleges were estimated to spend $850 for books and supplies in their first year, or 8 percent of the cost of tuitionand fees during academic year 2003-2004…”

    See page 10 of GAO report at:

    In a paper I wrote while working at UC Berkeley:

    “The case for creative commons textbooks”

    I provide references on how much it would cost develop open textbook either by organizing a coalition of schools or by allocating public funds. Here is the gist of my findings:

    There are around 100 to 200 core courses that use textbooks. At UC Berkeley, around 110 courses account for around 50% of undergraduate enrollments. The other courses are too small to be considered important to the textbook industry. So, let’s assume we want to develop and maintain textbooks for around 200 courses.

    The British Open University develops and maintains around 200 online undergraduate courses. So, let’s use their cost data to estimate how much it would cost to develop and maintain electronic textbooks for 200 courses. The OU spends around $3 million US dollars to develop and maintain a course over a period of eight years. At the end of this period, they start over with a new budget of $3 million (adjusted for inflation) to redo the course. So, this means they have an investment of around $600 million dollars ($3million times 200), which they depreciate over eight years. Therefore, they spend around $75 million dollars a year to maintain their electronic course material.

    Back in 2005, Ira Fuchs (from the Mellon Foundation) was talking about developing a coaltion of 1,000 schools to develop and maintain courseware (e.g. learning management systems like Sakai, etc.). If a similar coalition could be formed to “buy out” the British Open University and place their content in the public domain, it would cost arount $75,000 per campus.

    You get a per student cost by dividing this figure by the number of students at a given school. So, for example, there are around 23,000 undergraduates at UC Berkeley, so per student this would cost $3.25 per year per student ($75,000 divided by 23,000).

    So, if you compare the $3.25/year figure for open textbooks with the $800/year figure for commerical textbooks, it makes a very compelling case for open textbooks.

    Fred M. Beshears
    Bellingham WA

  2. October 14, 2011 11:02 pm

    Excellent post! The issue is near and dear to my heart and using open courseware related texts could certainly put our tax dollars in other areas of education and help save our children’s backs!

  3. Tim Sherman permalink
    October 15, 2011 9:02 am



    Over 900 Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild members, along
    with 180 Teamsters Local 763 members, voted Nov. 15 to
    strike against the Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-
    Intelligencer. The Guild represents reporters,
    photographers, sales and customer service representatives,
    composing room workers and others. The Teamsters represent
    the mailers–the workers who assemble the newspaper

    Delivery drivers represented by Teamsters Local 174 and
    press operators represented by Graphic Communications
    International Union Local 767-M have pledged to honor the
    picket lines.

    The Post-Intelligencer is a Hearst Corporation paper. Knight-
    Ridder owns 49.5 percent of the Seattle Times and the
    Blethen family owns 50.5 percent. Both papers are produced
    by the Seattle Times under a joint operation agreement.

    The Guild has set a strike deadline for 12:01 a.m. on Nov.
    21. The date was chosen to disrupt production of the
    Thanksgiving Day paper, the largest and most profitable
    edition of the year. The deadline was announced Nov. 15 at a
    rally of hundreds of Guild members, Teamsters and
    supporters. It was held across the street from the Seattle
    Times’ downtown headquarters.

    The Times responded by erecting a chain-link fence around
    that facility and the suburban printing plant. Jack-booted
    security goons were brought in from Detroit to guard the
    hallways and offices. Threatening letters have gone out to
    all the workers.

    Rather than intimidating anyone, these measures are
    strengthening the workers’ resolve.

    A strike headquarters has been set up in the Bricklayers
    Hall and pledges of support and material aid are flowing in.
    A strike paper–to be called The Union Record–is in the
    works. The original Union Record was a radical labor paper
    published during the 1919 Seattle General Strike.

    On Nov. 18 the unions held picket-captain training conducted
    by Boeing engineers and technical workers. Over 400 workers
    attended. The Boeing workers’ union is donating its phone
    bank and expertise. Boeing workers won a strike last spring
    against the giant airplane and weapons builder.

    The newspaper workers have been without a contract since
    July 22. Workers at both papers are demanding an end to the
    erosion of their wages and the two-tier pay scale. Consumer
    prices have gone up 43.9 percent in the Seattle area over
    the last 10 years. But the Guild contract minimum wage has
    gone up only 21 percent.

    It’s not like the bosses are broke. The Blethen family
    recently bought a string of newspapers in Maine for $212
    million. They’re paying off that investment in five years
    rather than the 10 originally projected. A suburban printing
    plant was also paid off ahead of schedule. The downtown
    Seattle Times facility is currently being remodeled into a
    Blethen showcase. Hearst, meanwhile, is involved in a $700-
    million-plus takeover of the San Francisco Chronicle.

    Both papers are flush with cash. Their average annual take
    is 21 percent profits. Newspaper workers are demanding to
    share in the wealth they create.

    — Charles (Kaz) Suzat
    Asst. Chapel Chair
    GCIU 767-M
    Seattle Times Chapel

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  1. Enhancing Education Through Technology » Blog Archive » Open Educational Resources
  2. 2011 The Year of Open « Paul Stacey
  3. Washington State House Democrats
  4. A Review of Open Education in 2011 | Classroom Aid
  5. 2011 The Year of Open | BCcampus

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