History textbooks in many California classrooms won't mention the election of President Obama or the subprime mortgage meltdown until at least 2016. Stem cell research and climate change could be absent from science texts even longer. And students will be using aging books for years longer than planned because of California's education budget cuts.
The state budget that closed a $24-billion gap last month dramatically reduced state spending for textbooks. The state Board of Education won't approve new books for kindergarten through eighth grade until January 2016 at the earliest, and districts have postponed approvals of new high school books as well. A state requirement that districts purchase books within two years of adoption has been waived until 2013.
Additionally, state funding previously earmarked solely for textbooks -- nearly $334 million this year -- can now be spent by school districts for other needs over the next four years, providing flexibility that educators say is essential at a time of severe budget reductions.
But the state's top educator fears these moves put students at a competitive disadvantage.
"We need modern, state-of-the-art textbooks, not outdated, antiquated textbooks," said state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell. "It could be close to a generation before we see new textbooks."
Others say the decision by the state to postpone textbook adoption and by districts to put off purchases is understandable, although far from ideal.
"There is no really good decision," said David Sanchez, president of the California Teachers Assn., which represents 340,000 teachers and other school employees.
"For now this is a good thing, to help preserve some programs and certainly preserve some jobs. It's certainly not something we want to continue -- eventually, we have to get new textbooks."
Teachers can still supplement aging books with other materials -- a routine practice -- so students will learn about Obama's election and the worst recession in decades. But the policy changes will dramatically affect districts' book purchases for the foreseeable future.
California school districts spent at least $633 million on new books in 2007, according to the Assn. of American Publishers. More recent numbers are not available, but a representative of one publishing house who asked not to be named because of proprietary concerns said sales in the state -- the nation's biggest textbook market -- are off by 50% or more.
"We're all seeing a precipitous drop," said John Sipe Jr., vice president of K-12 sales in California for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Fewer than 200 California districts have bought reading/literature texts this year, compared with publishers' typical expectation of 600 to 700, he said.
"This is a staggering difference for our industry," Sipe said.
Irvine Unified, which has cut more than $18 million from its $215-million budget since April, is among the districts that have delayed purchasing English and language arts textbooks. The move is expected to save the Irvine district more than $1.7 million.
"That's a pretty hefty chunk of change," said district spokesman Ian Hanigan. "This flexibility enables us to get through 2009-10 without making [more] cuts that would almost certainly impact class sizes and jobs."
Los Angeles Unified, the largest district in the state, is saving $60 million by postponing purchases. Districts' officials say the postponements will have a minimal effect in the classroom.
"During tight times, it just makes sense. There's really no impact on students, yet you're saving substantial sums of money," said Chris Eftychiou, spokesman for Long Beach Unified, which must cut $95 million from its $750-million budget over the next two years.
The 87,499-student district has put all major textbook adoptions on hold indefinitely, saving $5 million annually.
"It's not as if not adopting textbooks means students won't have textbooks," Eftychiou said.
Nader Twal, who taught high school English for a decade and now oversees Long Beach's small learning communities, said research consistently showed that the most important element to students' success is the quality of the classroom teacher.
Many textbook updates seem to him to be less necessity than testimony to publishers' clout in Sacramento.
"The majority of what changes is the look of the textbook, the colors used, the visuals, and perhaps some activities they recommend," he said. "Personally, I'm fine not adopting textbooks every year, every five years unless there is some huge uprising."
Not all districts are delaying purchases. Capistrano Unified School District in south Orange County is buying nearly $2.5 million worth of math textbooks and workbooks, in part because school officials worked with the publishers to defer some payments and because the workbooks that they need to buy annually are cheaper under the new plan.
It's not just history-making events that are lost when textbooks aren't updated, some educators say.