As school districts lose money, board members forgo purchasing textbooks

Amid sweeping budget cuts, several Georgia school districts are delaying purchasing new textbooks, setting up a scenario some fear could lower test scores.

Georgia school districts spent $82 million on textbooks last year $37 million less than they did a decade ago when there were fewer students enrolled in public schools.

While publishers now offer electronic textbooks, which are cheaper, several school administrators say they have delayed purchasing new textbooks, both online and physical, to keep class sizes low and central office staff in tact.

Large school districts can spend up to $13 million to purchase new textbooks for core subjects such as English and math.

Clayton County delayed purchasing math textbooks for two years because of budget cuts. In 2012, Fulton’s school board decided to briefly delay purchasing new language arts textbooks to explore other options, said Robert Morales the chief financial officer for Fulton schools. Morales said the delay was not because of budget cuts. Cobb’s school board is currently debating whether to purchase new textbooks.

Gwinnett and DeKalb administrators said they have regularly purchased new textbooks.

Few districts have gone as far as Cherokee County, which stopped replacing textbooks in all of its major subjects in 2009. Instead, the district rebinds its decade-old battered books and uses a mix of online resources to teach children. The district has also spent money training teachers over the summer on how to build curriculum without textbooks.

Administrators say the decision has saved the district at least $9.5 million over six years.

“It’s always hard when you tell people they’re not getting a bright shiny book next year,” said Letitia Cline, a Cherokee assistant superintendent. “But we’ve saved people and we’ve protected the classroom.”

In Cobb County, where a debate has roiled for months over the need for new math textbooks, several teachers, tutors and parents have argued textbooks are crucial to build lesson plans, homework assignments and give students a take-home study guide. They also argue that, without textbooks, children without Internet access at home will be at a disadvantage.

“It’s one of the key resources that students learn with,” said Dina Sherwood, a Cobb math coach for schools with a high population of low-income students. “Books give students step-by-step guidelines, show them how to solve a problem, give definitions and real-world examples.”

Ultimately, test scores will suffer, they fear. Cherokee said they’ve seen their test scores continue to rise without new textbooks.

“These kids need resources. Our future really does depend on it, ” said Carol Lawrence, a teacher who sat on the committee that chose the books.

In April, Cobb’s school board voted not to purchase new math textbooks aligned with Common Core. On Wednesday at 8:30 a.m., the board is expected to discuss three alternatives to providing new math books to all 108,000 students for the school year that begins Aug. 7.

Common Core standards specify math and literature concepts students should learn by certain grades. Georgia and 44 other states have adopted the standards, which are not mandated by the U.S. Department of Education.

But some board members fear nationalized standards amounts to a federal takeover of local schools.

Those same members have argued that, if they purchase the new math textbooks, there’s a possibility that Common Core will soon be tossed by the state leaders and the books will become obsolete.

“We did that (delayed the purchase of textbooks) to be sure that we don’t spend $7.5 million and regret it based on what the state says, ” said Cobb school board member Kathleen Angelucci who voted against the original purchase. “Textbooks are only one resource. In the past, administrators have told us, ‘We don’t always have to have them. Teachers use all kinds of resources to instruct students.”

John Barge, the Georgia State School Superintendent and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal have both expressed their support for Common Core.

Board members have repeatedly pointed to neighboring counties such as Cherokee, as proof that districts can thrive without textbooks.

Cherokee County, with 39,000 students located just north of Cobb, is known for its high test scores, parental involvement and student achievement.

“When we started sending our books to the bindery to get repaired, that’s when I realized times have gotten tough,” said Patricia Kearns, a former Cherokee principal who now works in the central office.

Georgia’s Department of Education recommends districts purchase new textbooks every six years to keep pace with state standards.

Publishers often write textbooks to match those standards, which are chosen by the state board of education and used to write standardized tests. Ideally, a Georgia teacher could use one textbook to teach all of the eighth grade science standards, for example.

Proposed textbooks go through an extensive vetting process by panels made up of educators, administrators and parents and put on display for public viewing.

School boards ultimately decide which books to purchase.

In the past, Cherokee spent an average of $2 million on textbooks but spent just $545,000 last year, according to state data. Most of that money was spent replacing old textbooks, subscribing to online resources or buying material for new courses such as an environmental science class.

Cherokee administrators allow students to bring their own technology to school, freeing up computers for low-income students without Internet access at home to use.

Parents in the district said they’ve learned to do without the books by using online learning websites such as Khan Academy.

“There’s so much available out there as far learning is concerned,” said Christine Rea who has two children in Cherokee. “Textbooks are going to be obsolete as fast as you print them. Information is readily available at the touch of your fingertips online. There just aren’t a lot of funds to purchase books. The district is still doing a pretty darn good job.”