LAND O'LAKES — Florida's budget looks bleak. It's so bad that schools are bracing for an actual cut in their year-to-year income for the first time in nearly 40 years.
So why, then, are school districts poised to spend millions of dollars on new reading textbooks?
During a school meeting to discuss budget-cutting ideas, the staff of Pasco High in Dade City suggested that when times get tough like this, perhaps schools could extend the life of their textbooks. Pasco County, which spent an average of $6.8-million a year on textbooks from 2004 through 2007, expects to pay more than $4-million next year for new elementary-level reading texts alone.
"I can't say everybody feels they can go longer, but that would be a majority," principal Pat Reedy said.
Teachers speaking before lawmakers about spending issues also have raised the question. Texts for most subjects are replaced every six years, although some subjects, such as technology, are replaced sooner, while others wait longer.
With bonuses for National Board-certified educators under fire, some suggested the state could change the textbook adoption cycle to give schools more flexibility.
How much, really, could a reading textbook change?
Quite a bit, actually, said Frances Haithcock, Florida's chancellor of K-12 education.
"The National Reading Panel came out with specific strategies to be part of every reading program," Haithcock said. "All textbooks have changed over to those reading strategies."
The new books reflect the most current research on the best ways to teach children to read, she said. Schools that used the Reading First program had such materials in place. The new adoption would bring them to all schools.
"I think it is very critical, even in times of budget concerns, that we get them (the standards and the related texts) to the next level," Haithcock said. "No one else is going to stand still. We certainly don't want Florida to stand still."
Buy now or buy later
Potentially complicating any shift in the textbook adoption schedule would be pending changes to math and science textbooks.
The new math texts, scheduled for adoption in 2009-10, are slated to go more in-depth on fewer skills, as recommended by President Bush's National Mathematics Advisory Council.
Science books, slated for adoption in 2010-11, would be revamped to include new standards, including an increased emphasis on hands-on learning and critical thinking.
New social studies texts are up in 2011-12.
Putting off the purchase of reading books next year simply would put districts in the tough position of having to buy two sets of books in a later year, Haithcock observed.
"To be very sympathetic of the schools' plight on funding, even in regular times, we went ahead and spread them (textbook adoptions) out so there isn't any more than one adoption per year," she said. "The textbook materials budget has been cut, but it should allow districts to be responsive to one adoption per year."
There's another fact to consider: Funding for textbooks and salaries come from different accounts. And the district can't put unspent textbook money toward anything else.
Districts may hold off buying newly approved texts up to two years, but beyond that they would need a change in state law to stick with the older books and use the money in other ways.
Pasco assistant superintendent for curriculum Sandra Ramos said that staggering the textbook purchases has helped districts financially. She also noted that districts can take up to two years to buy new texts and still receive all the supplemental materials, such as teacher guides and workbooks, that come with the books.
Even so, she said, the massive size of the reading textbook adoption prompted Pasco budget planners to set aside funds for the purchase two years ago.
More flexibility, such as giving schools greater choices over whether they need to use the state-approved textbooks at all, could benefit districts, Ramos said.
She mentioned that, while many new teachers gain from having good textbooks, veterans such as those at Trinity Elementary can create a valid curriculum based on the standards without using them.
"With the cycle, we don't have the option of looking at the books to determine whether they meet our needs," Ramos said. Adopting new ones "is not a question. It's a given."
Back on the shelf
Once the new books come in, the old books go into some sort of storage.
That could be on the shelf of a teacher who really liked the text and plans to keep using it regardless. Only half of a school's instructional materials must come from the state-approved list, leaving room for teachers to use other books in their lessons.
Students might take some home as references. Perhaps a community organization could use others in tutoring or similar programs.
All remaining books go to the district warehouse, where the staff works to sell them to used-book vendors, private schools and other groups. Finally, the leftovers get sold to the recycling plant.
Those proceeds go into the district's instructional materials budget to help pay for more new textbooks. It's a fraction of the total cost, Ramos noted, but every dollar helps.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.