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Schools, Textbook Publishers Adjust to Power Shift

A new state law decentralizing the selection and purchase of instructional materials for Texas students has sparked debate about how it will affect the politically charged State Board of Education's power to control what’s taught in Texas classrooms.

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A new state law that decentralizes the selection and purchase of instructional materials for public school students has sparked significant discussion about how it will affect the power of the politically charged State Board of Education to control what’s taught in Texas classrooms.

But its most dramatic impact may be on the state’s relationship to the textbook industry, since companies must now compete for bids from individual districts instead of being able to rely on a single big and largely guaranteed state contract. School districts are also using the same money to support technological hardware like iPads and salaries for technology training and support staff.

While the Board of Education still approves textbooks for students to use, Texas' 1,237 districts and charter schools are free to ignore its recommendations and purchase what they want in order to teach to the state's standards. The intent of the new law, its proponents say, is to give more local control to parents and administrators and to free districts to update their technology more frequently and as they see fit.

“We're only just seeing the first stirring of how the marketplace is going to address the new-found options to districts,” said Michael Soto, a Democratic board member from San Antonio. 

On Aug. 3, the Texas Education Agency distributed $750 million among the state’s districts and charter schools to spend on textbooks of both the ink-and-paper and digital variety. That sum also includes money for technology hardware and salaries. Districts received 70 percent of these funds for the biennium this year, with the remaining 30 percent to come next year. What the districts don’t spend will carry over to their next budget.

For publishing companies, the change in law means they face much more competition, said Ron Reed, an Austin-based sales and marketing consultant to publishers and a former textbook company executive.

“All of a sudden, you've got a bunch of potential costumers, each of whom are making unique decisions, and the competition for those dollars is grander than just those publishers [as an example] who also have language arts programs,” he said.

There’s also a shift in timing. Instead of the state placing a contract with a publisher for a certain number of books at one time and then distributing them to schools, districts are doing that on their own, deciding at different times when and if they want to get materials.

“Districts are saying wait, before we spend this, let's look carefully at what our goals and interests are,” Reed said, adding, "It looks a lot more like real money now as opposed to how many books [districts] need for a given category.’”

While the change in law gives new freedom to the districts, the state still exerts significant power because it determines the standards students must meet to graduate — and what they are tested on. The TEA has urged districts to focus their spending on what they need for the new STAAR testing regime and end-of-course exams that students will take this spring. 

The implementation of Senate Bill 6, as the law is known, was “not a good day” for publishers, said board member David Bradley, a Beaumont Republican who opposed the legislation. “The fact that you have decentralized purchasing away from the state paying the bill and using the recommended materials and districts are allowed to buy something off the shelf or off of the web or create their own product or buy hardware — they are not anticipating a good market at all,” he said.

According to an analysis from Texas Curriculum, a group sponsored by the Association of American Publishers’ School Division, as of last week only 33 percent of districts had placed orders for 9th grade English materials, and only 40 percent of this year’s allotment had been spent.

The delay is due in part to the fact that districts did not receive word of how much their allotment would be until early August and many are still working out how best to spend it, said Kim Slough, president of the Textbook Coordinators' Association of Texas.

She said that while districts welcomed the flexibility the new law offers, its quick roll-out has left many scrambling to make sure they are properly prepared.

“Not many schools have done business as a usual,” she said. And for some, she said, the 70 percent of the funds available in the first year didn’t cover everything the schools needed. “You’re having to make some cuts and just see what works best for your district,” she said, adding that other districts — apparently against the TEA’s urgings — were opting to wait and see where their weaknesses are on the new STAAR tests and then purchase their materials.

Slough said the uncertainty surrounding the new law would be challenging for publishers. “I think we'll see the game plan change for publishers,” she said. “I hope we don't lose them. They need us and we need them.”

Her worries may be misplaced. Joe Blumenfeld, a spokesman for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, one of the country's largest publishers, downplayed the law’s effects on how the publisher would do business. Because of the scale of its operation, he said the company often deals with individual districts.

“We work with our customers in the way they want to work,” he said, “If SB 6 is the model that Texas uses, that’s the model we’ll work in.”

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