State Senate bill to create open source library supported by education representatives

Two state Senate bills that aim to help college students save significant money on textbooks recently passed at a Senate committee hearing.

The two bills — introduced by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento — passed April 11 at a hearing of the Senate Education Committee, where public higher education representatives spoke in support of creating a library with open source textbooks for the 50 most popular lower division courses. Between now and Aug. 31, the bills will move through the committee hearings and Assembly floor, where they can be amended or defeated, according to Steinberg’s spokesperson Alicia Trost.

The first bill would set up a competitive bid process in which faculty members, publishers and other interested groups would introduce ideas and methods to create the free digital textbooks. This plan would also create a council composed of nine faculty members from the UC, CSU and community colleges to determine which textbooks to produce.

The second bill would create a digital library for open source textbooks. Students would be able to download textbooks for free or pay around $20 for a hard copy.

“It makes receiving books affordable,” said UC Berkeley freshman Alexis Alvarez. “It’s hard to find affordable prices for textbooks, and there have been times when I get a book late … (An open source library) would prevent that.”

An estimated $25 million would be required to implement this plan, according to Trost. Trost said the primary source of funding would most likely be the state’s general fund but that officials are also open to reaching out to nonprofit groups.

According to a Steinberg press release, Steinberg will work with Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, to identify possible funding sources.

“Currently there is a monopoly on textbooks and it is owned by a small number of publishers,” Steinberg said in the release. “Let’s work together to allow the free market to drive down the cost of textbooks.”

However, the Association of American Publishers — a national trade organization of the publishing industry that also spoke at the Senate hearing — has been critical of the legislation.

Andi Sporkin, chief communications officer of the association, said in an email that many publishers already produce “interactive, flexible digital-format course materials” for students and faculty that offer a variety of options for cost and help students succeed.

“Another of (the association’s) concerns is the possible intent to have the state, not faculty, determine which textbooks will be used for instruction,” said Stephen Rhoads, principal consultant for Strategic Education Services, on behalf of the association in an April 10 letter addressed to Senator Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach.

According to Trost, if the bills pass both houses, Gov. Jerry Brown would then have the whole month of September to sign and veto measures.

UC officials are currently working in cooperation with Steinberg on the details of the legislation.

“Because of that, it’s hard to say right now exactly how the bills might impact the University of California,” said UC spokesperson Shelly Meron in an email.

If the bills are signed into law, the plan would go into effect Jan. 1, 2013, according to Trost.

“It’s a pilot project in the sense that we want to start with the 50 most popular lower division courses,” Trost said. “That would start next year, but it would take some time going through the UC, CSU and community college systems.”