The search for an answer leads through a tangle of factors. Consider, for starters:
* Inflation: Textbook prices have risen faster than state funding. California's ranking toward the bottom in education spending leaves it scraping the barrel in book spending as well--47th among all states last year.
* Bureaucratic priorities: Although some states spend nearly 2 cents of every education dollar on textbooks, California districts, on average, spend about three-quarters of a cent and Los Angeles Unified's expenditure is less than half a cent.
* Disappearing books: At schools with high student turnover such as Fremont, where a third of the 4,000 who enroll in the fall are gone by the spring, books walk off campus faster than they can be replaced. Currently, the school textbook clerk's files list more than 6,000 missing books issued to current or former students.
* Changing demands: Every time educators adopt a new teaching method, a line of corresponding texts appears, creating the desire to replace an entire subject area of texts virtually overnight. The state's recent philosophical shift from traditional algebra and geometry classes to a continuum of integrated math classes cost districts $68 per student for books and other supplies. Most schools switch over gradually, which leaves them with incomplete sets to teach both old and new philosophies.
* Individual choices: Districts and principals must make tough spending decisions between books and teacher training, books and tutors, books and computers. And technology is an increasingly tough contender in that competition: Last year, Los Angeles Unified spent about $33 million on educational technology, according to a county survey, and $21 million on textbooks.
"We've been missing the obvious here," said Los Angeles school board member Jeff Horton, who recently launched a drive to bring more books into schools and who notes that dozens of textbooks can be purchased for the cost of a few computers. "We can't get higher reading scores without books. We're a bunch of adults who didn't grow up with computers who are dazzled by them."
Problem Affects Whole District
Wrenching competition for funds may be greater in poorer inner-city schools, but location is not the sole determining factor in textbook shortfalls. Plaintive cries about insufficient books ring out from all corners of the Los Angeles district, from Eagle Rock to Sylmar, Venice to North Hollywood.
Although all district schools have roughly the same amount of money available for textbooks, a review of school-by-school budgets from 1993 to 1996 points up broad differences in average textbook spending, from a low of $13 per student at San Fernando High to a high of $66 at North Hollywood High's magnet for the highly gifted. Expenditures tell only part of the story, because a school in a poorer area that spends more on books still may lose more, and thus have a smaller supply.
Sometimes, the residue of uneven spending can be found within a single school, particularly if there is a magnet program on campus. Over the last three years, Sylmar High averaged $19 per student on books, and its small math and science magnet supplemented that spending with an additional $10 per student.
The result is visible in the hallways, where magnet school students are the only ones carrying backpacks bulky with books.
So ingrained was the lack of books in one Sylmar biology magnet class that when teacher Bill Tarr announced that he had finally scrounged up texts for each student to take home, they groaned about having to tote the extra weight.
Tarr, who also teaches regular science classes with no take-home books, sees the contrast every day.
In the class with books, he can issue pop quizzes on what has been read the night before, then jump into the middle of a lecture or experiment, knowing that the students will not be disoriented. In the class without books, lessons get drawn out over several days because valuable teaching time is needed for reading from the classroom set.
"You get used to having nothing, of course," Tarr said. "It becomes a management thing: Five minutes at the start of class to pick up books, five minutes at the end to put them back, quiet time to read in class. It's really a waste of time."
High Schools Are Worst Off
Generally, elementary schools are better off because their texts are cheaper. The state also added $80 per student for new reading texts this spring, on top of materials money included in the elementary school class-size reduction push.
Middle schools experience feast or famine depending largely on whether they received or shipped out textbooks when they lost ninth grade and took on sixth grade after leaving the world of junior highs.
The largest gap between demand and supply occurs at the high school level, where textbooks are the most expensive and the need to consult a book at home for research and review is greatest.