[ OUR OPINION ]
Too many pukas in
plan for textbook fee
LEGISLATORS nibble at the edges of a problem with a bill that will allow public schools to charge students $20 a year to help pay for textbooks and instructional materials that are sorely lacking in classrooms. The proposal, which essentially amounts to a tax, provides little in the way of equitable relief for the system-wide textbook shortage and places no checks on how money collected will be spent.
The proposal would allow public schools to assess a $20 annual fee to pay for books and educational materials.
The measure transfers the onus of assessing the fee by leaving the decision to each school and although school-level determinations generally are the favored way to go, the method also serves to let legislators off the hook. In addition, there appear to be no guidelines on how such decisions will be made -- whether parents, teachers or the state Board of Education will be consulted.
The proposal dodges the broader issue of how to furnish students with the educational materials they need and whether the $20 will eliminate the shortages.
At present, schools are given an amount of money based primarily on enrollment to spend on textbooks and materials. Principals have the flexibility to use the money for books, publications and other materials, such as computers, and some have used it to pay temporary staff. The bill lets the schools keep collected fees, but it does not earmark them to be spent on books, an accounting that should be clearly required.
Because the fee would be waived for low-income students, schools with higher numbers of poor children may choose to reject the additional charge. If they do initiate the fee, their total collections could be far less than in more affluent districts. Both options result in an inequitable distribution of resources, counter to a basic tenet of public education.
Lawmakers get better grades on another measure, one that would require children to reach age 5 before beginning kindergarten. When the plan was proposed last year, critics saw it as a cost-cutting tactic, but the revised proposal properly recognizes that whatever money is saved from lower enrollments should be used for preschool programs. The bill directs the Department of Education to formulate early-childhood education for those too young to start school. It also allows parents who believe their below-age children are ready for the classroom to seek exemptions from the rule.
The state's revenue shortages have forced officials to make hard funding choices and while they have tried to spare education as much as possible, there has been little effort to tally whether the DOE's $1.3 billion budget is being used as prudently as possible. Until that happens, a $20 textbook fee may amount to but a drop in a leaking bucket.