New funding law could raise cost of textbooks

September 10, 2014

Boxes of textbooks in Braille and large print await delivery to students from the state Clearinghouse for Specialized Media and Translations in West Sacramento.

Thirty pounds of math – the weight of the “California Go Math” textbook in six large-print volumes – arrived for 6th grader Bethany Hughes in July, hefty tomes whose delivery from a warehouse in West Sacramento to her home in Westminster represented a victory in a small but heated dispute over the new education funding law.

For decades, the California Department of Education has produced and distributed textbooks for blind or visually impaired students out of its 50,000-square-foot warehouse. Bethany’s mother, Linda Hughes, said that every June a resource specialist at the Orange County Office of Education requests large-print textbooks for Bethany, who has optic nerve atrophy. In July, the books arrive by the boxful, at no cost to the district or county, not even for postage, which is waived by the stamp “Free Matter for the Blind.”

But under the state’s new Local Control Funding Formula, spending authority has shifted from Sacramento to school districts, including the responsibility for choosing and purchasing general education textbooks. Now some lawmakers are balking at the idea that the state continue to pay the cost of braille and large-print textbooks, rather than districts.

Yet charging districts for textbooks for visually impaired or blind students is an expensive proposition. “The reality is the price of these materials is tremendous,” said Erika Hoffman, legislative advocate for the California School Boards Association, which said school districts could ill afford an increase in costs.

If districts were left on their own to develop braille textbooks, they would pay $24,000 to have the 530-page “My Math, Grade 2, Volume 1” transcribed, formatted, inserted with tactile objects and proofread, the Department of Education said in response to an inquiry. With the benefit of the state’s power to bid and negotiate contracts, the state can produce the same book for $15,000. A district would pay $330 for the large-print version of the math book, compared to the $38 the state would pay.

Before the new funding formula rejiggered education finance as of July 1, 2013, the clearinghouse was funded by a slice of money taken from “categorical” textbook funds distributed to the state’s roughly 1,000 districts. Now the funding formula sends money to districts without as many dictates, but the return of the slice of money that each district used to contribute to the clearinghouse is nowhere near enough for districts to pay for the materials on their own.

And with the loss of the categorical funding stream, the clearinghouse found itself with no designated revenue source. The governor’s office came up with a plan to shift the costs to the districts.

“I think there was a lack of understanding not only of the cost, but of the way the clearinghouse works,” said Lee Angela Reid, legislative advocate for the Small School Districts’ Association, which opposes charging districts for the materials.

With 5,499 blind students in the state, and an uncounted number of visually impaired students who use large-print materials, the Clearinghouse for Specialized Media and Translations serves as a lending library for textbooks for grades kindergarten through 8. More than 600 school districts have registered to request books through the clearinghouse’s online ordering system.

“This is one of the rare items where all you’re doing is risking chaos by funding it any other way,” said Jeff Thom, president of the California Council of the Blind.

“If a child in El Sobrante used a book one year, they’d send it back to Sacramento to the clearinghouse and then a child in El Segundo might get it next year,” said Jeff Thom, president of the California Council of the Blind, a statewide membership organization.

Peter Jarvis, warehouse manager at the clearinghouse, with a braille math book in 39 volumes. Photo credit: Jane Meredith Adams/ EdSource Today

Since January, the clearinghouse has shipped 4,988 large-print textbooks, 839 braille textbooks and 57 audio textbooks to students all over the state, according to the Department of Education. Because the state has no officially adopted textbooks for grades 9 through 12, districts serve those students with a patchwork of resources.

Under two-story-high ceilings, the warehouse resembles a Costco where every item is an oversized book. Racks of red metal shelves support boxes of “Bumpy Rolls Away,” a learn-to-read book in braille. A 5th-grade Houghton Mifflin math book in braille awaits shipment: 39 volumes plus two supplements, each bound in a plastic spiral notebook about the size of a standard textbook, to make it easier for students to tote in a backpack. Warehouse manager Peter Jarvis said the books are returned in good shape, although they sometimes come back with extras. “I find a lot of homework inside,” he said.

The idea of a funding change began with Gov. Jerry Brown’s initial 2014-15 budget in January, which proposed making the clearinghouse optional, rather than mandatory, and required that the Department of Education charge districts a fee for materials for blind or visually impaired students. Neither of those proposals made it through the budget process, but the Senate Budget Committee fought in June to have districts pay something for the textbooks in 2015-16.

Eventually, the State Budget Conference Committee made a gesture toward district fees for 2015-16 by asking the Legislative Analyst’s Office to figure out how such fees might be calculated. As tentative as that sounds, some say the request indicates that the issue of who pays for textbooks for blind and visually impaired students remains on the table.

“We don’t see this as a thing that will easily go away, if it’s a way to generate revenue,” said Sara Bachez, legislative advocate for the California Association of School Business Officials.

But any change to the system raises the odds that blind and visually impaired students won’t get the high quality, efficiently delivered textbooks they need, said Thom of the California Council of the Blind. “This is one of the rare items where all you’re doing is risking chaos by funding it any other way,” he said.

And even if districts were asked to pay only a portion of the cost, it’s an additional expense at a time when districts already are digging into budgets for new textbooks aligned with the Common Core State Standards, said Debra Pearson, executive director of the Small School Districts’ Association. Furthermore, these new, district-selected textbooks raise another question, Pearson said.

“Since you no longer have to buy state-adopted textbooks, which textbooks have to be converted?” Pearson said. And if a district chooses a textbook that the clearinghouse hasn’t produced in braille and large print, “What happens then?” she asked. “If you have a child who isn’t allowed the same curriculum as others, that’s going to be problematic.”

In the end, the 2014-15 state budget allocated $4.5 million – $3 million in ongoing funds and $1.5 million in one-time funds – from federal special education money designated for state operations to keep the clearinghouse operating.

On a recent afternoon, Bethany ploughed through her new math book, which is aligned with the Common Core State Standards. “Without the books, my daughter would be left behind,” Linda Hughes said. She added, “I think local control is nice, except this is something that in local control would be very expensive to do.”


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