This paradox of “hunger in the midst of plenty” surfaced recently with a textbook shortage in Philadelphia’s school district — the eighth-largest in the U.S.
In 2013, the average school here had only 27 percent of textbooks recommended by the district’s curriculum. Ten schools had no books at all while others had books deemed obsolete.
In 2013, Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission authorized just $18 million for textbooks for 242 schools — roughly one-quarter of the amount needed. By year’s end, the book budget was eliminated. Budgets in 2014 and 2015 contained no allocations for books.
According to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, teachers spent $300 to $1,000 of their own money supplementing their meager budgets for books and classroom supplies.
Now it seems, the books were available all along. Thousands of books, many still shrink wrapped, were recently discovered gathering dust in the blockwide basement of the school district’s headquarters and in empty classrooms, hallways and library shelves of Bok High School, closed in 2013. (Philly.com, Mar. 18)
This surplus came to light after one teacher, tired of using fundraising websites to buy books for her students, began asking questions. She’d heard about the warehoused books and wanted some.
In a district where nearly 60 percent of students read below grade level, the science, algebra and literature textbooks found piled in boxes could make a difference. The PFT is calling on its members to distribute the discarded books to classrooms where they are needed.
Three years of massive funding cuts and the layoff of over 5,000 Philadelphia school employees left the district without staff to inventory the textbooks.
In addition to books, pianos and band instruments were warehoused at Bok, items badly needed by schools that closed music programs for lack of supplies.
Profit motive is part of the problem
In response to the outcry over the stockpiled books, school district spokespeople responded that many of the texts were “outdated.” But, parents and teachers asked, aren’t older literary classics and math and science books better than no books at all?
The answer lies with the profit motive driving Common Core testing. While basic subjects like science, math and literature have not changed, the questions found on standardized tests have. CTB McGraw Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Pearson Education, who write and grade these tests, also publish the books that students need to prepare for them. Test questions are often taken verbatim from these textbooks.
In 2013, Houghton Mifflin earned $1.38 million from textbooks that students needed to pass its tests. McGraw-Hill, which produces the branded math curriculum used by most of Philadelphia’s K-5 schools, is part of a Pennsylvania consortium given a $186 million federal contract to write and grade standardized tests.
In 2013, more than half of Philadelphia students scored less than proficient on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests because they lacked access to the books containing the standardized answers.
Textbook shortages are not unique to Philadelphia. School districts in New York City, the District of Columbia, Chicago, Los Angeles and other major cities also lack money to buy books. Students should not suffer from a failed system that puts profits before people’s needs. Make the greedy corporations pay!