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New Online Marketplace Emerges After Changes to Textbook Buying Law

In 2011, Texas drastically changed the way it regulates school district purchases of instructional materials. Last week, a new online marketplace opened, giving districts more than 100,000 options to exercise their newfound freedoms.

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When Dottie Hall, the textbooks purchasing manager for the Round Rock Independent School District, was on the hunt for a new spelling program for teachers in the district, she settled on a book series called Words Your Way.

But Words Your Way was not on the state-adopted list of materials approved by the State Board of Education, according to state curriculum standards.

A year ago, the school district wouldn't have been allowed to use state money to purchase those books. But today, that has changed. Satisfied that the program was appropriate for what was being taught in Round Rock, Hall purchased the books.

In August 2011, the Legislature approved Senate Bill 6, which drastically changed procedures used that fund and regulate instructional material purchases, including textbooks and technology, in Texas school districts. Now, school districts have more control over their purchases, but some in the education community are concerned that districts' worries over how they spend the money could actually result in less funding next year from the state for school materials.

The measure gave individual school districts, instead of the state, control of instructional material purchases. Doing away with a separate technology allotment, it established a fund for districts to spend on materials and technology combined as they saw fit. At the end of the year, districts must prove that materials they chose cover 100 percent of the state curriculum.

Before, Hall said, the state would only make certain materials from particular publishers available and would provide each district with a limit on how much they could order. The state also maintained property rights on instructional materials, which meant districts could not get rid of materials they no longer needed.

“Now, in order to purchase materials, we formed a committee and we discussed what we would like to have purchased,” Hall said. “We do have less money, but I think we’re making decisions.”

To help districts make those decisions, the Texas Association of School Boards has launched two new websites that give administrators a “one-stop shop” to find all the materials that are available, said Jackie Lain, the associate executive director of governmental relations for TASB.

“We wanted to democratize the process,” Lain said. “ We wanted to help districts make informed decisions.”

One of the sites, run by a company called BuyBoard, allows more than 4,000 member schools to browse new material from a variety of publishers and to bid on auctions of surplus materials from other districts. A second site, run by TASB, allows districts to sell their materials in a Craigslist-style marketplace. The sites include material that is and is not on the state-adopted lists, and include more than 100,000 different products, Lain said.

Despite the long-term implications of SB 6, the process today still looks largely like it did in the past, said John Lopez, the managing director of instructional materials and educational technology for the Texas Education Agency.

“The majority of districts are purchasing the state-adopted material,” said Lopez, who noted that when the changes were made, schools going their own way was a worry. “The SBOE had a concern that districts would not purchase materials that would align with TEKS.”

That’s not what happened. In fact, if there is one notable trend in the materials being purchased since SB 6 was passed, it’s the lack of spending among school districts, specifically on technology, said Jennifer Bergland, the director of government relations for the Texas Computer Education Association.

Bergland said that so far this year, school districts have spent $37 million on classroom technology. That’s well below the $135 million annual allotment for technology purchases, she said.

Bergland said that districts are being careful with their spending until new material requirements for science, math and technology take effect in November 2013. Those subjects, in particular, are more expensive for school districts, a concern since technology and textbook purchases are now rolled into the same fund by SB 6. 

But Bergland said she was worried that low spending this year could give legislators the false impression that schools don't need more funding for materials next year. 

"That would be the wrong conclusion," she said.

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