For most of America’s 10 million middle schoolers, English class means enjoying—or, perhaps, enduring—the timeless narratives of the Western canon: Fahrenheit 451, Black Boy, The Giver, Parable of the Sower, 1984. Teachers order these books every year, and school librarians stock up for fall classes. It’s a cash cow for book publishers and distributors—and they intend to keep it that way.
Over the past decade, Silicon Valley’s tech behemoths have discreetly and methodically tightened their grip on American schools, and the pandemic has given them license to squeeze even tighter. By 2017, tens of millions of students were already using Google Chromebooks and apps for reading, writing, and turning in their work. Google Classroom now has more than 100 million users worldwide—nearly seven times the number reported in The New York Times three years ago. When we emerge from the pandemic, schools will be even more reliant on such systems. Industry is bolting an adamantine layer of technology onto the world’s classrooms, in what amounts to a stealth form of privatization.
The benefits of e-books may seem obvious. They should provide a cheap, convenient way to supply millions of kids with classic novels: They don’t wear out, they can’t get lost or be defaced with underlining, doodles, or the name of your latest crush, and, with a pandemic still raging, they provide a safe, instantaneous way to distribute books to students who are stuck at home.
But in practice, this convenience comes at a staggering cost. Billion-dollar companies like Follett and EBSCO are renting e-books to schools each year, rather than selling them permanent copies. By locking school districts into contracts that turn them into captive consumers, corporate tech providers are draining public education budgets that don’t have a penny to spare.
So how much does it cost for a school to rent a book? I asked Chrystal Woodcock, library media supervisor for the Menifee Union School District in Southern California.
The Diary of Anne Frank, “a really important, classic piece of literature that social studies teachers have taught forever,” Woodcock said, “costs $27 per student for a 12-month subscription.”
In other words, you buy the book for $27, and it just—expires?
Yes, Woodcock said. “You have to budget for that every single year … The Diary of Anne Frank, Lord of the Flies. The books that are part of our ingrained culture. Like in California we read Island of the Blue Dolphins, about a Native American tribe that lived on the islands off the coast.” (A hauntingly lovely book that I was assigned myself as a child, an agreeably raggedy paper copy that had passed through many other hands before mine.)