The Disruption of the Traditional Textbook Model Continues

Texas Governor Rick Perry signed HB 4294 June 19, and the world of textbooks will never be the same in Texas or across the country.

Because Texas purchases all the textbooks for all the subjects for school districts, and because of its sheer size--more than 8,000 schools educating 4.6 million students--Texas drives the textbook market. This means most publishers create their products to fit Texas specifications and with the Texas vetting process and clientele in mind. Publishers make some modifications for other states and large districts, but for the vast majority of publishers, the Texas template is the starting point. HB 4294 makes some important changes in the vetting process and strongly encourages the submission of electronic materials. It also puts a dent in the more than 50-year-old business model of one book for one student.

First, the law.

In general, the law:

  • Creates a vetting and approval process--a commissioner's list--that is separate from the traditional State Board of Education process. The commissioner's list can be used for "electronic textbooks and instructional material that conveys information to the student or otherwise contributes to the learning process";
  • Requires school districts to purchase a classroom set of textbooks adopted by the State Board of Education for each subject and grade level in the curriculum; and
  • Allows school districts to use the state textbook fund "to purchase technological equipment necessary to support the use of electronic textbooks or instructional material included on [the commissioner's list] or any textbook or material approved by the State Board of Education."

In order for materials to be put on to the commissioner's list, they must:

  • Be reviewed and recommended by a panel of experts in the subject area and in educational technology;
  • Include evidence of alignment with current research in the subject area;
  • Include coverage of the essential knowledge and skills (TEKS) of the subject and list the percentage of TEKS covered; and
  • Include appropriate training for teachers.

An Alternative Vetting Process
The traditional Texas State Board of Education vetting process is notoriously long, arduous, and subject to pressure and influence from every part of the political spectrum, but particularly the far right. In addition, the SBOE has been known to make arbitrary and capricious decisions about whether or not some books are worthy to be on the final list from which districts can select, especially in science and social studies, but also recently in elementary math. Over the last decade the Texas legislature has attempted to limit the SBOE's authority over the content of textbooks with some success. While HB 4294 requires that the SBOE be given an opportunity to comment on the electronic textbook or instructional material before it is placed on the new commissioner's list, commenting is the extent of their authority over the list. The rules for governing the commissioner's list have yet to be created, and the proverbial devil may be in those details. Still unclear is what the timing may be for submission of materials on the commissioner's list and whether those materials will need to be on the same cycle as the SBOE list.

Flexible Use of Textbook Funds
The new law requires school districts to purchase a classroom set of textbooks adopted by the State Board of Education for each subject and grade level in the curriculum. Once that is done, districts are free to select materials from the commissioner's list or the SBOE list and/or to use funds allotted to textbooks to purchase "technological equipment necessary to support the use of electronic textbooks or instructional material" either on the commissioner's list or on the SBOE list.

Here's how it might work: If a school has 100 students signed up for Algebra I, those students might be spread into five classes of 20 students each. The school is required to buy one classroom set of materials from the SBOE list--20 books or sets of instructional materials--and the price per book is, say, $50. The school spends the equivalent of $1,000 for the classroom set. That leaves the equivalent of 80 students worth of textbooks/instructional materials (80 x $50 = $4,000) that the school can use to acquire textbooks or materials from the SBOE list or the commissioner's list or to purchase technological equipment necessary to support the use of electronic textbooks and instructional materials.

This is unheard-of flexibility for school districts that have long been chained to one textbook for each student and, in most cases, only one option of materials per subject, unless the school district wants to use some of its own money to purchase alternative materials. Under the commissioner's list, it is possible for schools to have a wide variety of materials for each subject, all paid for by the state.

Putting a Dent into the Old Business Model
Possibly the most important long-term effect of HB 4294, however, may be a subtle one not readily noticed by schools in Texas or across the country. The long-term effect is an alteration of the 50-year-old business model for textbooks of one book per student at a cost of $XX per book. Under HB 4294, the total amount school districts will receive for instructional materials will still be figured on that model. However, once a school district has satisfied its requirement to acquire a classroom set of materials for a subject area, it is free to break from that model and order materials and technological equipment. While this change does not take education to the totally open and flexible iTunes purchasing model as some would prefer, it does provide significant flexibility to districts. In addition, it opens up the Texas market to a large number of companies that heretofore had no chance to compete. For the basal publishers that have owned the market, creativity and flexibility will, or at least should, become a new mantra. Many of these publishers already produce electronic materials and provide Web sites and other electronic resources, but they usually are part of an overall package or are free with an order. Conceivably publishers could pare down or break apart their large packages and charge for each component under this system. That would help school districts acquire only the materials they really will use and may help publishers recoup some of the investment that was lumped under marketing costs in the old model.

It remains to be seen what direction a new business model or sets of business models may head, but the genie is out of the bottle, or, if you prefer, Pandora's Box has been opened, and change is upon us.

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