It wasn’t long ago that people were worried about students getting injuries from carrying too many textbooks in their backpacks.
But now many North Carolina public school students are lucky to have any textbooks to take home.
State funding for textbooks has been cut by nearly 80 percent in the past four years, just as the state has been switching to a new curriculum with new textbooks. At the same time, school districts are expected to make the switch to digital textbooks by 2017 even though no money is set aside for computers or other digital devices for every student.
With schools buying fewer textbooks, it’s forcing parents to decide whether they’re willing to pick up the tab to buy books for their children to take home – putting low-income students at even more of a disadvantage.
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“I’m not an educator, just a parent who has been educated,” said John Schlichenmaier, a parent of a student at Broughton High School in Raleigh. “I’m sure the bureaucrats can point to all different kinds of excuses. But the fact remains that you have young kids who are being cemented into a permanent lower level of life. They should have the textbooks they need.”
Some school districts have found a possible means to resolve the situation, but it’s an approach that won’t be cheap and could require hard decisions in an economy that’s still in recovery mode.
Funding stays flat
The state is the main source of textbook funds for school districts, often the only source for smaller ones.
In the 2009-10 fiscal year, the state provided $111.2 million for textbooks. But amid the budget crunch, it was cut to $2.5 million for the following fiscal year.
State textbook funding has hovered around $23 million for the past three years. Left-leaning groups have criticized the Republican-led General Assembly for not raising textbook funding back to $100 million a year. But the big cuts began back when Democrats were in charge of the legislature.
School districts now receive $14.26 per student for textbooks, compared with $67.15 per student in the 2008-09 fiscal year. But 80 percent of that $14.26 per student is used on items such as workbooks for elementary schools that are used up each year, said Drew Fairchild, chief of textbook services for the state Department of Public Instruction.
Fairchild said that leaves a few dollars per student to spend at a time when the average cost for a textbook ranges between $39 and $86.
“How can you afford a (grades) 6-12 math textbook for $14.26?” he said.
The state, which negotiates textbook prices with the publishers, has continued to adopt new textbooks to reflect the changes in curriculum, but Fairchild said districts haven’t been able to buy many of the new books. With each year, Fairchild said, districts fall even further behind providing students with enough new textbooks.
Fairchild estimates that purchases handled by the state textbook warehouse have dropped from $74 million a year to $14 million a year. The 52,000-square-foot warehouse, the only state-operated textbook depository in the country, now largely sits empty off Reedy Creek Road in Raleigh near the N.C. Museum of Art.
‘We can feel the impact’
Schools have resorted to buying only a few textbooks for each subject. That means there aren’t enough textbooks for all the students to take home.
“The lack of textbook funding has been a big issue,” said Kerry Chisnall, principal of East Cary Middle School. “We can feel the impact.”
Like other schools, East Cary’s photocopy budget has shot up as teachers have copied the pages that students need.
Stephen Mares, principal of Broughton, said teachers don’t teach straight through a textbook anymore so photocopies can work. But Mares said he recognizes that some students need a textbook so he tries to provide one when requested.
“My job is to provide what teachers and students need,” he said. “If a teacher truly needs it, it’s my job to get it.”
Schlichenmaier, the Broughton parent, was able to get a Latin textbook from the school. But he plans to buy other textbooks for his son, something he says is not possible for the lower-income students.
Luke James, a Holly Springs parent, encountered similar challenges when he discovered his daughter didn’t have textbooks for most of her classes at West Lake Middle School. He said he had to go to Wake County school system’s central office to get a science textbook.
“The kids don’t have the reference materials they need,” he said. “You see how the U.S. schools rank against the other countries. I’m sure those other kids have the reference materials they need. It’s a shame.”
Example in Orange
The future of textbooks changed this year when a law was passed saying the General Assembly plans a shift from funding paper to digital textbooks by 2017.
School districts, most of which don’t yet have one computer for every student, are still trying to figure out how they’ll adapt to the change, especially as the law doesn’t include state funding for new devices.
June Atkinson, state superintendent of public instruction, said it could cost $75 million to provide schools with the devices they need, not including the funding for the actual digital content.
Some technology efforts haven’t gone smoothly. Guilford County school officials pulled 15,000 tablets out of middle schools in October after safety issues such as partially melted chargers.
Wake County school leaders are going slower as they work through a policy that would allow students to bring their own digital devices to school. It’s not been resolved yet what will be done for those families who don’t have their own devices or Internet access at home.
The Orange County school system is well ahead of Wake, providing laptop computers to every student in grades 3 through 12. The middle school and high school students take their laptops home with them.
“The roll-out has gone well,” said Michael Gilbert, an Orange County schools spokesman. “It’s really gone over well with the kids.”
Orange County has shifted its textbook funds into buying digital content, although not necessarily digital textbooks. The district still buys paper textbooks for Advanced Placement courses.
Part of the funding for Orange County’s laptop initiative comes from a quarter-cent sales tax approved by voters in 2011.
Atkinson said the General Assembly can help with the transition by boosting textbook funding.
“We have to recognize that students learn in a different way now,” she said. “This will be a huge switch for parents. We have to adjust.”