The Nashville Book Fail

Recently there has been a lot of stir, especially in the progressive community, over the Metro Nashville School systems failure to provide adequate books for students at John Early Middle School. This has led to an NAACP led law suit, which has garnered much press.  It also led to folks opposed to the MNPS rezoning plan to say, “See! Here is proof of racism in our system!”

There are many  things to say about the equity of the rezoning plan, although I in general think that the intentions of those who developed the plan were far less sinister than some would make them to be. I also understand that this becomes a convenient political ploy upon which to build a legal case (and if not this one, another would have surely arose). What amazes me however is the complete lack of understanding how our schools work, and the inability to folks to admit the truth about why many, many schools (not just those in the areas affected by rezoning) do not have a complete complement of books.

Every year, principals make book orders based on their projections of how many students they think they will have. Then, on the first day of school, they discover how accurate or inaccurate those projections were.

We are an urban school district, which by nature has a large transient population. What principals generally discover on the first day of school is that they have more kids than expected (especially in more urbanized area) and as such have to make a supplemental book order to meet the needs of those kids. Rather than discriminating against those kids who don’t have books due to late arrival, teachers will often hold off on distributing the books for out of class use in order to ensure that all have equal access to books.

“So,” I hear some say. “Simply run down to the book warehouse and get more books.” That is what Judge Nixon suggested when this case first came to the courts.

That would assume that there IS a centralized book depository somewhere; a warehouse with thousands of surplus books. While that may have been true in 1963 Dallas, it is no longer the case in a world of “just in time” shipping. This is made worse in Nashville, the publishing Mecca of the world, for the proximity of the Ingam Empire in LaVergne leads us to think that we really don’t have to deal with this ourselves. So, Metro Schools has a total staff in obtaining and distributing books of 3 people. They are dependent on the Tennessee Book Company for obtaining books, and the Tennessee Book Company is a for-profit company that doesn’t warehouse books for which they don’t have orders.

Yes, I know we live in an Amazon instant world, but the textbook biz is a different beast entirely. It’s not like the latest best seller in which some warehouse is filled to handle the flurry of orders flying off the shelf. No, these are specialty items, many of which have limited print runs and there end up being national shortages. Simply put, there aren’t enough books for ANYONE, not simply the kids in the rezoned area, and the schools are dependent on the good will of book publishers to get stuff off backorder and to the schools.

Is this a flawed system? Probably, but in more ways than simply book distribution. However, in a public system in which we take anyone who shows up, our ability to predict human behavior and the number of kids at any given school is limited. Our Magnet Schools have full complements of books not because of privilege, but because they have a limited population and know weeks in advance who will be at school that first Monday morning. Our other “regular” schools don’t have that advantage.

One thought on “The Nashville Book Fail

  1. Working for a publisher, it’s interesting the conversation that goes around about the actual publishing of books and products. It’s a BIG deal, sometimes garnering more focus than what actually goes into the product in the first place (though, luckily, it’s often different people who have to worry about content vs. publishing, so it doesn’t take up too much of the editors’ time!)

    One conversation that is just starting to be had is about online publishing – providing the content in a downloadable format for personal use either on a computer or to print off. With all the unknowns aside about online publishing in general, how would online publishing help to solve this problem of a lack of books in schools? What if each teacher/principal could purchase the rights to print off a copy of the text book for each child? Or, more radically, what if the children had access to computers to read their downloaded text books? Then, when day one arrives, and they have 10 extra kids in room 203, all they have to do is hop online and purchase 10 more rights.

    Now, I know it wouldn’t be that easy in reality. And it certainly needs to be thought out more than my five minutes here. But what are the possibilities? In this digital age, we have to start looking outside the box – or at least the rectangle of the printed book.

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