Can Poland afford free school books?

The government’s free textbook scheme will bring financial relief to many families, but publishers say the state is effectively monopolizing a profitable business.

WARSAW | Just before opening time at a bookshop in the southern Polish city of Czestochowa, sales clerk Jadwiga Szyinska sounds worried as she answers a phone call.

She is concerned for two apparently unconnected reasons. In September, her daughter will start the first grade, which means extra expenses for clothes, shoes, supplies, and, of course, books – all told, a big item in the family budget.

“The school book is at least 250 zlotys [$80]. And you still need to buy language books and a religion textbook, it’s about 400 zlotys together for books alone,” she said.

Detail of the textbook Polish first-graders will receive free of charge. Image from the Coalition for Open Education,

Detail of the textbook Polish first-graders will receive free of charge. Image from the Coalition for Open Education,

Szyinska earns just above the minimum wage in Poland of about $400 a month after taxes. The average net salary is about $950.

A bigger concern is that she could even lose her job, for reasons that have a lot to do with school books. Typically, the shop would be gearing up for the summer season when parents start coming in to buy their children’s required books for the coming school year.

“It starts in June and peaks in late August and early September,” Szyinska said.

This year, though, it will be different. The employees and management worry about losing customers thanks to a new government policy of providing free textbooks for some of the 3.2 million students in public schools, starting this year with the first grade.

“On one hand, I won’t have to pay for my daughter’s textbook and can use the money I save to buy other things she needs for school. But our sales are about to drop and the management is already talking about layoffs,” Szyinska said.

“Ours is a small shop and it’s going to be difficult for us to make up the loss in revenue from textbooks by putting in different things to sell, like stationery, school bags, and the like,” shop manager Iwona Strumienska said.

“Maybe if the book market in Poland were better in general, we wouldn’t be worried about making less from school books, but as things are now, school books are very important to us,” she added.

Book sellers are worried about losing a significant part of their business, while commercial textbook publishers stand to lose far more, and they are pushing back against the government’s move into a market worth nearly $300 million a year.

The government rolled out the free school book program in April saying it was time to bring Poland in line with most European countries and provide public subsidies for the cost of school books.

Backers say the benefits of free school books will outweigh the potential loss of business for publishers and bookstores.

“Parents’ spending on textbooks is growing every year. This cost is considerable for many families,” the Education Ministry said in April. Schools will distribute government-published books free of charge to first-graders in September. Second-graders will join the program in 2015 and additional grades will be added up to ninth grade in 2017.

The ministry’s data come from an annual survey of family school costs by the CBOS polling agency. According to the most recent poll, the amount families spent for required textbooks grew from 260 zlotys ($85) in 2007 to 382 zlotys in 2013.

“About 14 percent of families said they could not afford to buy textbooks for their children,” the ministry said. A typical family spent 826 zlotys in school-related expenses for each child at the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year, the ministry also said, drawing on data from the Central Statistical Office – nearly the monthly take-home pay for one of Poland’s 1.7 million minimum-wage workers.

The goal of the government is no less than to transform the Polish school book market. This September, the more-than-500,000 children to begin the first grade will be first to test the books commissioned and published by the government. The first-grade book’s lead author, Maria Lorek, said the text will be at least as good as those produced commercially.

“It’s going to be a book that invites kids to explore. These days, a book cannot be the only tool with which children get to know the world, so it’s going to be a starting point. It won’t simply offer them pages with exercises to fill. And it’s a book that will last, because it will be passed on to the next first-graders,” Lorek said.

The government has not announced the total cost of the program.

“We assess that the overall cost of the school book for first-graders will be about 15 million zlotys [$3 million]. This entails preparing the book’s contents, printing, and distribution to schools, as well as adapting the book for disabled children,” Education Ministry spokeswoman Justyna Sedlak said. By that reckoning, taxpayers will be tapped for about $10 per annual four-book set, audio materials, and access to an associated website, far less than the retail cost alone of the current commercially published books.

Schools will still be able to opt for books from commercial publishers, but local governments would have to pick up the tab without asking parents to pay, Sedlak said.

A typical boxed school book set from a commercial publisher costs from 200 to 250 zlotys in stores. Given the number of first-graders this year, the retail market for their books would have been worth at least 100 million zlotys.

The entire Polish market for required primary and secondary school texts was worth about 850 million zlotys in 2013. Unsurprisingly, then, commercial publishers have hit the press and social media with a campaign against the free book policy.

Publishers claim the government is creating a textbook monopoly that will mean job losses in the publishing industry and tax losses to the state budget. They also argue that allowing public and private schools to opt for commercial textbooks on the open market will give rich families more choice than poor ones.

“[The government wants] prices lower. We understand this and think it’s possible to offer existing textbooks free of charge using funds earmarked for education in the state budget,” six publishing houses, with a combined 95 percent share of the textbook market, wrote in a letter to members of parliament in April.

They also claimed that they can publish textbooks for the same cost the ministry estimates it will be spend for a government-published book.

“If that is the case, why have they been waiting only until we proposed a solution to say they can lower prices? They’ve only been raising them,” the ministry’s Sedlak retorted.

Officials also claim publishers build in repeat sales by binding texts and exercise books together, so that the books must be discarded at year’s end.

“It’s disheartening to see books piled up to be thrown away after the end of every school year. There are many poor communities, in rural areas in particular, where passing books on would make a lot of difference, financially,” Lorek said.

According to Jerzy Garlicki, the chief executive of a leading textbook publisher, WSiP, it’s the government that has long lacked the will to take publishers’ interests into account and at the same time keep parents’ costs to a minimum.

“It should have been possible to introduce a system of subsidizing books, which is what most countries in Europe do. Instead, we’re being accused just of raising prices,” Garlicki said.

Most European countries partly or fully subsidize school books from public monies, according to the Polish Book Chamber, a publishers and booksellers association. Garlicki sits on the chamber’s board.

Garlicki argues that the introduction of government-produced books will reverse the gains Polish education has made in recent years: “With only one book to use, teachers won’t have the option to choose the textbook that is best suited to the way they prefer teaching kids to read, write, or do math.”

Poland’s recent good results in the biennial PISA (Program for International Students Assessment) rankings are partly thanks to the rich offering of textbooks from commercial publishers like his, Garlicki says.

Poland has recently moved into, or close to, the top 10 countries in the PISA rankings for math, science, and reading. It was at about 25th position in 2000.

Garlicki also suggests that a centralized textbook system could allow the government to smuggle its agenda into schools.

The first draft of the first-grade school book did attract criticism for its ideological agenda, but not from the side of the publishers. Feminist organizations and liberal media outlets flagged what they called its shortcomings in presenting gender roles, saying the book largely ignores the societal changes in Poland in the last 25 years.

Lorek, who faced similar criticism over a primer she wrote in the 1990s, says the final version of the text addresses these concerns.

“This is a book that’s very much about equality, but with the limited scope that it has to have – because it’s for small children – we couldn’t possibly fit in all aspects of the equality discourse,” she said.

With just three months until the book goes into the hands of pupils, the Education Ministry recently announced a tender for its distribution. Meanwhile, publishers say they are taking defensive action.

“We have started negotiations with trade unions about layoffs in the company. The publishing department will be worst hit,” WSiP’s Garlicki said.

Wojciech Kosc is a journalist in Warsaw.  This article was initially published by Transitions Online.


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