What drove big textbook donation?

I see where two local groups have announced the “largest in-kind donation ever made” to Southern Nevada’s Public Education Foundation, the nonprofit that channels charitable aid to the Clark County School District.

The Latin Chamber of Commerce and Another Joy Foundation plan to give to the Public Education Foundation textbooks they value at $6.8 million.

The 161,708 unused books — dating from 2006 or later — were provided by textbook publishers including McGraw-Hill and Pearson.

Budget cuts at the government youth camps — in particular, “dramatic” reductions in textbook dollars — made the need for help with books all the more acute, explains Javier Trujillo, chairman of the Latin Chamber and a former school district teacher.

The texts, many of them intended for bilingual students, will cover areas such as math, science and “language arts” (Did that used to be English, I wonder?) in all grades.

Both groups say the donation announced Feb. 17 is just the beginning; they hope to locate and transfer at least an additional $15 million or so worth of books in the next 12 to 18 months.

Presumably the publishers will get hefty tax deductions for six-year-old books they couldn’t sell. That’s fine. That’s why the “loophole” for charitable donations is in the tax code.

Mr. Trujillo assures me school district staff have said these specific books are needed, so the Latin Chamber and Another Joy certainly deserve credit for their good works.

A couple of questions do arise, though. Who decided to accept without challenge a valuation of $42 per book to help McGraw-Hill et al. clear out their warehouses? Don’t unsold textbooks lose value fairly quickly?

A local accountant tells me it’s unlikely the publishers will be able to claim a tax reduction at full list price: “The code says they have to report a ‘market value.’ ” And a Las Vegas Rotarian smiled when told of the $42-per-book valuation. “We used to drive to a warehouse the Library District had over on Arville (Street), whenever a new school would open,” the Rotary member recalled. “We’d fill up an SUV with books and give them to the schools. … We paid a dime a book. I suppose if we’d used a figure of $42 a book, we could have claimed we were making a million-dollar donation, too.”

It’s unlikely former Clark County Superintendent Carlos Garcia had a hand in this deal, as some have suggested. He became vice president for urban markets at McGraw-Hill in 2005, but in 2007 he took a superintendent’s post in San Francisco.

But why do these publishers appear to have so seriously overestimated the market for bilingual textbooks?

Lee Wilson, president and chief executive officer of PCI Education in San Antonio, spent two decades in the education publishing business and blogs at www.educationbusinessblog.com/k12_publishing/. He asked:

“Is the instructional materials market in the tank? … Since November 1st a moderately down market has dropped like a stone. A senior executive at one of the big 4 publishers flatly stated that this was the worst he’d seen it in 35 years. I’m inclined to agree.”

But the problem isn’t necessarily any huge wave of budget cuts, according to Mr. Wilson. “For the supplemental market the evidence points towards a stall — at least so far. Low sales numbers don’t match the funding availability, there is no evidence that a huge amount of funding has been pulled from the market all of a sudden. What we do have is an abundance of uncertainty which is prompting districts to sit on the funds they have.”

Sales of basic textbooks have definitely stalled. “The large publishers have reacted accordingly with McGraw-Hill laying off over 500 people and HMH a smaller number,” he reports.

But where does all this uncertainty come from?

“Everyone was expecting a cooling in the market when the stimulus program came to an end in September,” Mr. Wilson explains. “Then the Feds announced that they would grant extensions through next September to pretty much anyone who applied. Prudent districts will sit on these funds until next summer when they have more information about all funding sources. … We may also be experiencing a ‘stimulus hangover’ similar to a sales dip in the car market after a huge round of incentive driven purchases.”

Another unintended consequence of a feel-good federal intervention? A purpose-designed bubble that had to collapse? Imagine that!

And of course, there’s “the death of the book,” itself. “The success of blended print/technology products is upending the traditional buying processes in districts,” Mr. Wilson reveals. “This is the result of new regulations on the adoptions … that allow districts to purchase in many media rather than requiring a book.”

Combine that with new mandates from the Department of Education — the blatantly unconstitutional federal agency that’s supposedly forbidden to dictate local curricula (ha!) and that every responsible politician has been promising to take out behind the barn and shoot since 1981 — and you have a government-dominated “market” in predictable chaos, leaving the best-funded school systems in the history of the world whining that they don’t have funds to hand every kid an armload of schoolbooks. Didn’t we used to cover them in brown paper and turn them in so they could be re-used for years?

In a 2009 study, the Nevada Policy Research Institute found the Clark County School District reported per-pupil spending for 2008-09 at $7,175, but that when all costs including building construction and debt service were included, “The actual true cost per pupil will be $13,387” (http://npri.org/publications/funding-fantasies).

And this district needs charity for schoolbooks?

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and author of the novel “The Black Arrow” and “Send in the Waco Killers.” See www.vinsuprynowicz.com.

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