State textbook funding woefully inadequate

Have you noticed that prices are dropping and you can get more for less these days? We haven’t either, but our lawmakers are acting as if this were true. Our current state budget touts a $1 billion increase in educational funding, but little is said about how much of that money actually reaches classrooms. In terms of basic learning supplies such as textbooks, the amount is shockingly little.

Textbook funding is $111 million less than pre-recession spending, a 78 percent drop from 2008-09. According to ncpublicschools.org, the official website of the state Department of Public Instruction, it currently costs anywhere from $66-$86 per student to supply textbooks, but only $15 per student is allocated.

Here in Asheville, our teachers are doing more with less. Given the Common Core’s focus on nonfiction texts, many teachers are using online texts and resources rather than textbooks. Others have been able to stretch department funds to buy class sets of novels. Funding from outside sources like the Asheville City Schools Foundation and AVID has also helped educators secure supplies.

“Our students want and deserve a first-class education. … Students who take my AP government class are trying to earn a college credit in political science. How can they expect to have a ‘collegiate experience’ when the textbook they’re using was written during George Bush’s presidency?” says Bill Van Cleve, who teaches social studies at Asheville High School.

“Earlier in my career, the social studies department had funds allowing us to adopt new textbooks every four to five years.” Now, however, civics, U.S. and world history textbooks haven’t been updated in 7 1/2 years, and there’s no indication that new texts will be adopted any time soon.

Social studies teacher Katie Williams has a class set of textbooks from 2008, which are written on, marked up and falling apart. When her students have “book work,” she puts together her own readings using online versions of the textbooks.

Howard Shepherd, who teaches English, generally makes the choice “to spend my paltry supply budget (typically $175 once or twice a year) on class sets of books — especially those books that are considered expendables. I may have enough now to get me to my retirement [in four or five years], if I can get enough book tape to cobble them back together,” he reports.

And as North Carolina considers shifting to digital textbooks, Shepherd voices concern. “This is incredible folly,” he declares, “and a wildly irresponsible use of resources. For some disciplines, e-books may actually be a better choice. But for literature texts, hard copies can be used over and over. E-books are licensed, and that license has to be renewed every year — not to mention the fact that there’s a necessary outlay for expensive hardware that has to be regularly replaced.”

Outdated textbooks affect student learning in numerous ways. An obvious one is the outdated information students receive. The current high school civics and AP government texts, notes Van Cleve, contain no mention of landmark court decisions or legislation during the past eight years. And they lack up-to-date information on campaign finance law and the revised use of the filibuster in the U.S. Senate.

But there are also more subtle psychological effects on students, who may feel they don’t deserve new things, or that because their learning environment is already run-down, they don’t need to take care of what they have. In addition, using books that have the correct answers already underlined impedes genuine learning. And as the state moves toward heavy technology in the classroom, those with unstructured home lives and/or limited access to Wi-Fi may be at a disadvantage.

These teachers’ dedication and passion for their profession are admirable. “There are a lot of us who love what we do, love our kids, and beat ourselves up day after day trying to do what is best for our students,” notes Williams. “When we are told to do more with less — that more will be expected of us even though there are fewer resources at our disposal — it hurts.”

The Asheville City Schools Foundation is proud to offset the impact of these cutbacks. Since 2000, the foundation has provided over $800,000 to directly fund teacher-led projects at schools and over $1 million in student scholarships. These investments make a difference, but we can’t do it alone. This spring the foundation will be informing and engaging the community to encourage support for public education.

Public education has always been a shared responsibility — an investment we make as a community and a state — to ensure that we maintain and nurture our thriving region. Public schools can produce a workforce that’s capable of sustaining our state, but first we need the state to sustain our public schools.

Julie Porter-Shirley is the Advocacy Program coordinator for the Asheville City Schools Foundation. To learn more about the group’s work, visit acsf.org; to receive timely, focused updates, sign up for Advocacy Alerts.

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About Julie Porter-Shirley
Julie is the Advocacy Program Coordinator for the Asheville City Schools Foundation and on the board for WNC for Public Education. She is the proud mother of two children at Claxton Elementary.

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