NC should reverse cuts in textbook funding

December 17, 2013 

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State textbook warehouse employee Mike Matthews sorts outdated state employee files for shredding. The bulk of the 52,000-square-foot main warehouse floor once was occupied by textbooks for the state school systems but now is a holding area for old files of various state agencies on their way to the shredder.

HARRY LYNCH — hlynch@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

While politicians debate the best approach to public education, a situation has emerged about which there should be no debate: Schools are running out of textbooks.

Among squabbles over charter schools, vouchers and teacher pay, the General Assembly has been quietly holding back funding for one of the most basic tools of education. It started with Democrats in control during the 2009-10 fiscal year. Scrambling to make up a shortfall in state revenue due to the national financial crisis, lawmakers cut state funding for books from $111 million the year before to $2.5 million.

That drastic reduction was intended as a stop-gap savings in the face of a collapsing economy. Instead, sharply reduced funding has become the status quo. Republicans who took over the legislature the following year restored a portion of the cut, but it has hovered around $23 million for the past three years.

Now that paucity has translated into empty backpacks as children have no textbooks they can take home. Teachers are driving up school costs as they copy sections of the now-precious textbooks that must remain in schools. Children go home with a handful of copied pages.

Lawmakers are among the biggest advocates of parents’ getting more involved with the education of their children, but how are parents supposed to help with homework if there is no textbook to consult?

The digital ‘decree’

Incredibly, lawmakers in the last session ignored the shortage of textbooks and passed a law saying funding would shift from paper to digital textbooks by 2017. That may sound farsighted, but it’s shortsighted. The conversion to digital can’t be made by decree. Many school systems don’t have enough computers and electronic tablets to provide all students with digital textbooks.

June Atkinson, state superintendent of public instruction, said it could cost $75 million to provide schools with the devices they need. Schools will need even more money to buy digital content for the devices.

Meanwhile, some districts that have gotten in front of the technology curve are finding the conversion to digital difficult. There’s more to it than handing out laptops and website addresses. There are issues of affordability for all students, the availability of appropriate digital content and even safety hazards related to electronics. Guilford County pulled 15,000 tablets out of its middle schools after safety issues such as partially melted chargers.

The Orange County school system is a state leader in making the conversion, providing a laptop to every student in grades 3 through 12. But that progress has been spurred by the willingness of Orange voters to pay for it. In 2011, voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax that partly funded the laptop initiative.

An embarrassment

Schools coped with the early cuts in textbook funding by drawing on reserve funds, but overall reductions in state schools funding has drained those reserves. Now they are in a position where they don’t have enough money to buy textbooks or to convert to digital. School districts now receive $14.26 per student for textbooks, compared with $67.15 per student in the 2008-09 fiscal year.

This situation is an embarrassment on top of a larger funding drought. Teacher assistants have been laid off. Teacher pay has been virtually frozen for years. Now students don’t have books. What’s next? Taking away toilet paper and white board markers? (Actually, yes. The N.C. Association of Educators says the latest budget cut classroom-supply funding by $45.7 million.)

Not another state lawmaker should say a thing about public schools until he first says what he is going to do about paying for an adequate supply of textbooks. Restoring funding is easily within reach. Tax revenues boosted by the recovery, such as it is, are already running ahead of budget. Put the extra funds into books and equipment that will provide students with textbooks to take home and help schools prepare for the eventual conversion to digital.

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