It’s a sure sign that an issue has hit crisis mode when Republican and Democratic legislators are on the same page about what needs to happen. In this case, it’s a fraying page from a textbook industry that needs some help embracing change.
The Senate Education Committee yesterday handily approved two more bills aimed at lowering the cost of textbooks from elementary school through college and moving them more quickly into the e-book era. In all, seven bills dealing with textbooks are making their way through the Legislature.
Publishers would have to provide, in one place, information on the differences between editions, how much the books cost in all their forms from hardcover to paperback, and a list of other texts on the same subject and their prices.
“Today’s K-through-12 students have grown up immersed in digital technology,” Senator Mimi Walters (R-Laguna Niguel), author of SB 1154, told the committee. “However, California students are attending schools equipped with outdated, heavy, hardbound textbooks, some of which are at least ten years old.”
Walters’ measure has three parts. 1) Textbook publishers would have to provide instructional and supplemental materials in both print and digital formats; 2) publishers could not require schools to buy textbooks bundled with other materials – they’d have to make the items available à la carte; and 3) publishers will have to offer free digital versions of textbooks to schools that buy the hard copies and allow students to access the digital material through a secure, district-based online database.
The other bill approved by the committee yesterday, focuses on college textbooks. SB 1539, by San Leandro Democratic Senator Ellen Corbett, seeks to make it easier for faculty to compare prices and content. Publishers would have to provide, in one place, information on the differences between editions, the cost of books in all their various formats from hardcover to paperback, and a list of other texts on the same subject and their prices. Corbett said having access to this information would enable faculty to easily compare prices and content and save their students some money.
As anyone who has paid for college lately can attest, textbooks are a second serving of sticker shock after tuition. A report by State Auditor Elaine Howle found that “in the four-year period ending 2007-08, textbook prices rose at rates that significantly outpaced increases in the median household income in the United States.”
At that time, Howle reported that textbooks accounted for 13 percent of the costs of attending the University of California, 23 percent at Cal State University, and 59 percent for community college students. Some of that is due to markups by college bookstores that ranged from 25 to 43 percent at the nine California campuses the auditor reviewed.
But publishers still take most of the heat for such practices as issuing updated editions that often do little more than switch the order of chapters, but in so doing make it impossible for students to sell back their books or buy them second-hand.
“From our perspective, we view textbook publishers as highly exploitative,” Justin Goss, a student senator at UC Davis, told members of the Senate Education Committee. “While I am sure that they are perfectly nice people, it continues to baffle me why a reordered table of contents and a shiny new binding warrants and additional $50, $60, or sometimes $100 on the price tag.”
For their part, publishers argue that some of the bills are redundant and could drive up costs more. Most of the information required by the bills is already online, said Stephen Rhoads with Strategic Education Services, a consulting and lobbying firm that represents the Association of American Publishers.
There are already several federal and state laws governing textbooks. Both the Higher Education Opportunity Act, passed by Congress in 2008, and California’s College Textbook Transparency Act, which took effect at the start of 2010, require publishers to provide nearly all the information contained in Corbett’s bill. A third bill, SB 48, by Sen. Elaine Alquist (D-Santa Clara), gives college textbook publishers until 2020 to offer electronic versions.
“We actually think the marketplace is working for books,” testified Rhoads yesterday. He cited statistics compiled by the market research firm Student Monitor showing that prices have been dropping in recent years. However, a closer look indicates that students have more options today to buy less expensive books or to rent them online. What’s more, Student Monitor reported that more than 40 percent of students said they didn’t buy all the required books because they couldn’t afford them.
But publishers have other concerns about the bills that pose legal and ethical questions. It’s one thing if school districts that buy the textbooks also receive a free digital copy for students to access, but publishers want to be sure it’s a secure platform that protects the work from copyright infringement. If they have to develop that platform, then shouldn’t they be compensated?
Those issues are still being worked out said Everett Rice, a spokesman for Sen. Walters. “The senator’s goal was never to essentially try to not allow the textbook companies to function,” said Rice. “We’re just trying to create greater flexibility based on the changing technology and to give school districts more room for negotiation, and to only give them what they need.”
State Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is pushing for greater change. He and Sen. Alquist have two bills that go hand-in-hand. SB 1052 creates the California Open Education Resources Council, charges it with developing a list of the 50 most widely used college textbooks for lower division college courses, and allows faculty, publishers and other experts to bid for funds to produce 50 high quality affordable, digital open source textbooks and related materials.
The companion bill, SB 1053, creates a digital open source library jointly run by the University of California, Cal State and California Community Colleges. His goal is to have the first 25 books ready by the fall of 2013, with the second group of 25 coming a year later.
With students and parents struggling to pay for college, “our goal is to move fast, because there is great urgency,” Steinberg said at a December news conference announcing his bills. “The book publishers are used to a particular model; the world is changing.”