California Bill Seeks to Limit Textbooks to 200 Pages

If New York City is a potential site of good educational policymaking, California is a leading candidate for oddball legislation. In a commonsensical op-ed, the San Jose Mercury News thrashes Democratic legislators who want to regulate book lengths:

Assembly Sticks Nose into Textbooks

On Thursday they approved AB 756, a bill by Jackie Goldberg, D-Los Angeles, that says: Neither the State Board of Education nor a local school district “may adopt instructional materials that exceed 200 pages in length.”

Textbooks, the bill’s supporters argued, should sum up the basics and then refer students to the Internet and to libraries for the rest. Plus, shorter is lighter and cheaper.

Maybe. Their assumption doesn’t seem that obvious to us. It seems like something that ought to be decided — just brainstorming here — by actually reading each proposed textbook, as opposed to laying down an arbitrary limit.

The bill doesn’t jibe with other instructions (some from the Legislature) that textbook publishers have been getting to avoid textbooks that are just dry columns of words. They must be full of pictures and charts. And in each subject, they have to cover the state’s comprehensive curriculum requirements. This makes them longer.

Read the full text of the bill. Interestingly, in the process of finalizing the language, proponents made the rule more stringent than it was first intended to be:

This bill would declare the intent of the Legislature to enact legislation that would facilitate and enhance pupil learning by enabling prohibit the State Board of Education and school districts to adopt from adopting instructional materials that make use of technology and multimedia materials to supplement and reduce the cost and size of conventional textbooks exceed 200 pages in length.

I support the wider use of technology, especially online sources that supplement course materials. But I suspect that this rationale is just a ruse. For one thing, three years ago, Gray Davis approved a measure to lighten school backpacks in response to concerns that children may be carrying heavy loads. The 200-page limit appears to be part and parcel of the same effort. Moreover, perhaps environmental interests simply want to save trees. Goldberg, after all, received support from the California League of Conservation Voters.

Overall, the bill seems pretty heavyhanded. Not only would the state have to oversee what should be a local matter, but publishers would likely have to change their production processes to comply. I don’t see how the benefits can outweigh these and other significant costs.

(Thanks to Alex Tabarrok for the pointer.)

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Robert Garcia Tagorda
About Robert Garcia Tagorda
Robert blogged prolifically at OTB from November 2004 to August 2005, when career demands took him in a different direction. He graduated summa cum laude from Claremont McKenna College with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics and earned his Master in Public Policy from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.


  1. Anderson says:

    Not enough stupid Californians, apparently.

  2. DaveD says:

    I really think it is time to limit the capacity of these legislators to make a decent living doing soley…..legislating. These clowns really have way too much time on their hands. Or at least convene legislatures for a limited span of time each year when the first thing they HAVE to do is pass a budget. Then within the remaining limited time take up other major concerns such as approving nominees,etc. They probably wouldn’t have any time left over for things like this. And like farm subsidies, pay these guys NOT to do anymore legislating after the limited session time is up. I bet when this bill is sent for a floor vote it will have enough relevant and irrelevant caveats, exceptions and riders that it will have more pages than the textbooks they are legislating. And with no pictures to boot.

  3. Anderson says:

    Not to mention that as few legislators will have read it, as students do their textbooks.

  4. Brian Drozd says:

    The idea that limiting the size of a text book will have any positive effect is just silly. The only thing it will do is cause publishers to create more text books – breaking up the original books into properly sized series. They’ll break a 700 page book up into four parts, expand the index, introduction, and other filler matterial without adding content, and then charge consumers a third of the original price for each 200 page book. Publishers will make grumbling noises, but be happy, and the parents will be out more money, and the teachers won’t let the backpacks stay light for long.

  5. Scott in CA says:

    Goldberg’s other obsession is her insistence, year after year, to introduce a bill to prohibit CA schools from using “Redskins” as a mascot/team name. This involves four schools in a state of 36,000,000 people, and all four of them have told her to mind her own goddam business. Even the local Indians don’t give a crap. Arnold vetoed the thing last year, and he will veto it again, hopefully while tearing it up on television while smoking a cigar in his office (just to piss her off). As a Californian, I so sick to death of these weasels. We have a budget due in four weeks and this is what our Democratic idiots are doing.

  6. Scott in CA says:

    Above poster is right. When I was a kid we had a part time Legislature that met for a few weeks every other year. Now they’re full time, costing $110,000 each for a total of over a quarter of a billion a year – for this crap.

  7. Anderson says:

    Brian’s right—this is obviously a stealth move by the textbook publishers! Next bill: 16-point-type so’s not to discriminate against the visually impaired.

  8. Roger says:

    Not only should textbooks be only 200 pages in length, they should use 16 point Ariel and lots of bright, pretty pictures and there should not be mention of anything negative or offensive in the books. And before class starts, the kids should sing R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People.”

    Yeah kids. When I was your age, I walked to school…5 miles! Uphill…both ways! In the snow! And I carried a backpack full of books! 1000 pages each! Five of ’em! Kids today…I tells ya…

    Unforgiveable waste of tax dollars.

  9. Annie says:

    As a mom, I am certainly in favor of measures to lighten backpacks. The best way to do this is for schools to purchase enough textbooks to not only give one to each child, but to also retain copies in the classroom. That way students may leave their copy at home. (This is not very expensive. Imagine a math course – one teacher has 6 classes of 25 students each, which requires 150 textbooks – buying 175 textbooks would allow for a classroom set.)

    But I feel I should point out that in Japan, students have much smaller textbooks that are actually designed to cover one year of material. My child has never in 10 years of school actually used the entire textbook during the year. So, I do think it would be smart to encourage the printing and using of textbooks that are geared towards real classroom curriculum. In other words, why have 25 chapters in a book, if no one ever gets beyond chapter 15?

  10. Stan Brin says:

    Hold your horses. I just did a story on this problem.

    This effort is not aimed at Harry Potter or Western Civ, it’s aimed at math books.

    Asian math books are booklets under 100 pages. They do a better job by making sure that the basics are thoroughly absorbed and understood.

    Overloading kids with material that is immediately forgotten is considered stupid by all the best minds, regardless of party.

    Let’s find out if this has been properly thought out.