Two articles caught my attention today, probably because they reflect a wide gap in state perspectives on educational spending.

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On March 11, 2009, the Maine Department of Education announced it is extending it’s statewide laptop initiative (The Maine Learning Initiative) to high school students. The program started in 2002 with 7th and 8th grade students. The extension program to high schools is voluntary, however. According to the press release:

The expansion is part of an agreement the state Department of Education negotiated with Apple Inc. for a reduced rate on the laptops, allowing the state to lease 100,000 machines within existing funds dedicated to educational technology. Under the agreement, the state will provide new laptops to all high schoolers and replace older machines at the middle school level. School districts are not required to participate in the program, though superintendents have indicated overwhelming support for the laptop expansion.

I’m curious to know what the “reduced rate on the laptops” is. I think $300 per year is a typical lease rate for a laptop from Apple for a school. Does anyone know what price per computer the state of Maine negotiated for with Apple in this latest round?

It has been interesting to hear a great deal from Maine educators in the past year or so, listening fairly religiously (as I tend to do) to the Seedlings podcast (and now webcast) published by Bob Sprankle. While it is very important to equip all students and teachers with laptops to empower digital learning, the experiences of Maine educators suggest to me (based on my relatively limited opportunities to learn from them) that merely supplying computer hardware is INSUFFICIENT to bring about transformative pedagogic change in schools and classrooms. All Maine middle school students and teachers may have and have had laptops for six years, but from the sounds of things they still feel like they have a LONG way to go in transforming educational learning opportunities for students into more blended, digitally infused experiences. If Maine has such a long way to go, what about states that are much, MUCH further behind like Oklahoma?!

The second article which caught my attention, but reflects an entirely different perspective in educational spending at the state level, was the Dallas Morning News article from this past Thursday, “Irving ISD uses online textbooks, so unused copies state must buy sit in a warehouse.”

Thousands of textbooks and other materials worth an estimated $4.6 million sit unused in an Irving school district warehouse. No one knows how many $50-$75 textbooks sit unused in school bookrooms or storage warehouses across Texas.
Irving ISD officials say the problem stems from two major factors: the increased use of computer-based instructional materials and the reluctance to issue textbooks to each student for fear they might lose or damage them.

A subsequent sentence in the article is quite arresting:

The Texas Education Agency, which regulates public schools, budgeted $500 million for textbook purchases in 2008-09.

$500 million dollars?! To be spent in a single school year on paper-based textbooks?! Goodness gracious.

In my December 17, 2008, post “Hyperconnectivity and Convergence are coming: Our schools need to embrace digital media NOW,” I referenced the December 5, 2008 editorial in the Austin-American Statesman “Making outdated textbooks obsolete: Computers in classrooms would make lessons and learning more reflective of real world.” Unfortunately, that editorial appears to no longer be accessible on the newspaper’s website. That editorial suggested a political constituency might be emerging in the Texas legislature this year to FINALLY change the state’s education code, ending the mandate that schools MUST use curriculum funds to purchase paper-based textbooks whether they want to and will use them or not. This is a topic I’ve been following for several years. My July 2005 post, “HB2 / HB4 Advances in the Texas Legislature” provided some background about that well-intentioned but failed attempt to challenge the textbook lobby’s power and grant school districts local autonomy to purchase instructional materials which best suit local needs.

Every state in the United States needs to grant local school districts autonomy to choose whether or not they use state funds to purchase paper-based textbooks. In school districts which have implemented one-to-one learning initiatives for students, paper-based textbooks are a complete waste of money. Even in many school districts which are not yet 1:1, textbooks sit unused on shelves in many schools. In an era of financial hardship and recession, it’s logical for school boards and legislatures to look for ways to better utilize taxpayer education dollars in thrifty ways. One to one learning initiatives certainly have sizable costs, but digital curriculum can and should be MUCH more affordable on a per-student basis than the analog textbook purchasing paradigm we continue to perpetuate in states like Texas.

Textbook publishers are understandably desperate to preserve the status quo when it comes to mandatory paper-based textbook purchasing in states like Texas. According to the previously cited Dallas Morning News article:

The way textbook publishers package their products compounds the problem, according to experts familiar with the business. In effect, many publishers will not sell computer-based versions of their textbooks unless the state agrees to buy the paper version as well. Publishers characterize the computer-related materials as “free” along with the textbook purchase. This so-called “bundling” strategy has exacerbated the problem in Irving because the district has issued laptops to all high school students, meaning they have little need for paper books. “If we don’t need a textbook; we shouldn’t have to have one,” Bailey said. “But we don’t have the right to the online textbooks if we don’t buy the physical ones. That’s just the way the pricing structure is set up.”

This pricing structure does not benefit students or taxpayers. The only entities it benefits are the textbook publishers, and those corporations should NOT be calling the shots about how taxpayer dollars are spent. Unfortunately, as we know from so many other contexts, corporations today wield ridiculous amounts of financial and political power. As citizens, we need to reassert our ownership over the political process and dethrone the corporate, financial interests who (in many cases) set the political agenda and determine political outcomes. For more on this theme, I recommend the 2003 documentary “The Corporation.” It’s available on Netflix. I wrote about it back in February 2008.

Kudos to Maine lawmakers for finding the political will and dollars to extend the MLTI to all high school students. Here’s a shout-out to all the Texas blog readers out there: Contact your state representatives and senators and ask them where they stand on giving school districts local autonomy to use instructional material funds as they see fit. Irving ISD and other 1:1 districts should NOT be forced to waste millions of dollars of taxpayer money on paper-based textbooks which are never going to be used by students. There are SO many better ways to use limited educational funds than helping sustain the quarterly profits of textbook industry companies.

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On a related topic, thankfully, the latest row over evolution and creationism in the Texas school curriculum appears to be over. If you’d like an excellent overview of why this outcome is a good thing, I recommend Jerry Coyne’s article from March 26th in The Guardian, “Creationism in the classroom: Evolution is a scientific fact – except, perhaps, in Texas, where the school board is trying to cast doubt on it.” Hat tip to the Texas Freedom Network for the link. Whether we’re talking about textbook requirements for the study of evolution or a change in the law permitting local choice in selection of educational materials, Coyne has it correct when he notes that what happens in Texas matters greatly for the rest of us in other parts of the United States and world:

What happens in Texas doesn’t stay in Texas. That state is a sizeable consumer of public school textbooks, and it’s likely that if it waters down its science standards, textbook publishers all over the country will follow suit. This makes every American school hostage to the caprices of a few benighted Texas legislators.

Come on, Texas. You’ve got a great chance to LEAD the nation with the broad adoption of digital curriculum alternatives for schools. Texas should force textbook companies to sell ONLY a digital textbook version, if that is the desire of the district. Forcing districts to purchase paper-based textbooks when they only need digital versions equates to extortion and this madness must end. At a BARE MINIMUM, give school districts a choice when it comes to spending instructional materials dollars. If school districts want to stay in the 19th century and keep their paper-based textbooks, I think they should be allowed to. Districts on the other hand, like Floydada and Irving which are moving with all available speed into the 21st century, should be supported by having local autonomy to use curriculum dollars as local leaders see fit.

Hat tip to the Anywhere, Anytime Learning Foundation (AALF) for the link to the Irving textbook article.

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4 Responses to Maine laptops for grades 7-12 now, Texas still forcing paper textbook purchases

  1. Mike Muir says:

    In Maine, the schools will be charged around $250 per seat for 4 years. But you’re right, hardware isn’t enough. This includes the software image, wireless network in the schools, 4-year warrantee, and ongoing regional professional development for teachers, leadership, and tech support.

  2. Ian Hancock says:

    Thought you might also be interested in this article which I originally saw on gizmodo but links to

    The article mentions some other interesting things happening in Texas Education. The gizmodo site states, “In Austin, creationists have managed to include several amendments aimed at casting doubt on the theory of evolution. The amendments may affect the content in science textbooks across the country.

    While the creationist groups did not manage to get the bulk of their agenda included in the State Board of Education’s legislation, they did pass a few amendments casting doubt on the theory of evolution. Some tricky language, like an amendment requiring students to “analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any data on sudden appearance and stasis and the sequential groups in the fossil record,” is more insidious than it seems. When new textbooks come up for review in 2012, the board can reject books that they feel do not adequately address the issue, a key creationist talking point. And as Texas is a major buyer, textbook publishers may be forced to alter their products so as to avoid conflict with the self-proclaimed creationists on the Texas Board of Education, which could affect the rest of the country as well.”

    The link for the salon article is here:


  3. Gary Miller says:

    Texas has always had books stored in a warehouse. They work well for supporting a rifle if you want to shoot at a President.

    I quit using textbooks around 1990. Why waste the money on paper?

  4. As a Fort Worth Chiropractor, you can bet I will be doing a “shout out” to the Texas Legislature. Talk about days gone by!

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