Because of its sheer size, California is a trendsetter for public school textbooks across the country. And if more groups answer Schwarzenegger’s call for free learning material, it could lead to changes in school districts across the country.

One factor that could undermine the initiative is the extent of technology in California classrooms.

On average, California schools have just one computer for every four children–a situation that prompted Education Week to give the state a D-minus this year for its use of education technology compared with other states.

“Every kid, every classroom, needs access to the internet and to a computer if you’re going to talk about putting textbooks on the internet,” said Alameda County Superintendent of Schools Sheila Jordan.

She said Schwarzenegger’s proposal has merit, but she worries that it could increase disparities between students in poor schools and those in middle-class or wealthier districts.

Schwarzenegger’s proposal also would require schools to invest more money in technology to access the online material and pay for professional development so teachers could effectively use it.

“From a policy perspective, it’s absolutely the right way to go. But to sell it as a savings tool to districts to deal with the budget crisis is a little disingenuous,” said Hilary McLean, spokeswoman for state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell.

California school districts have lost billions of dollars from their budgets over the past two years as the recession has drained the state’s tax revenue, and Schwarzenegger has proposed another $5.3 billion in education cuts next year.

The budget for textbooks and instructional materials dropped to $350 million last year from $419 million the previous year.

In many schools, learning already is moving online. A bill pending in the California Legislature would approve electronic readers such as the Kindle as acceptable alternatives to traditional textbooks.

Neeru Khosla, founder and executive director of the CK-12 Foundation, a nonprofit organization seeking to make textbooks available online for free, said she has 30 high school texts available digitally. Most of them are in science, math, and engineering.

Although many individual teachers or districts might incorporate material they find online, Khosla said the only other state she knows that has promoted that material on a systemwide basis is Florida, which adopted a free online reading program for elementary schools. (See “Florida adopts open-content reading platform.”)

Khosla said lack of technology should be not be an excuse for inaction. Not every student needs a computer, as long as the teacher has access to one, she said. They can print out materials, or use classroom projectors to display pages.

“In the short term, maybe we’re not going to save money,” Khosla said. “But long term, it will be changing the way we do things. … Content shouldn’t cost.”

Links:

Education Commission of the States

CK-12 Foundation