American in Spain

Textbooks – Spanish Schools Are Not Free

August 19, 2015
First grade Spanish text books.

This September, my six-year-old daughter will embark upon her academic journey as a student; she's starting first grade. When I was an elementary school student in the United States, I remember going to school on the first day, and finding each desk with a stack of books on it. Almost always, each book was old and worn, and part of the fun of the first day of school was to open the front cover to sign your name on the list of previous students who had been assigned that book. Sometimes you even knew the previous one-year-older kid who had had that book before you. I remember the shock of arriving to college and being told, "These are the textbooks that you need," each semester, and then being expected to go to one of the half dozen textbook stores full of school-branded sweatshirts that lined the perimeter of the campus to purchase your textbooks. As any reasonably frugal college student would do, I purchased most of my textbooks second hand, and I sold most of my books back, at half the original price, to the same book stores at the end of the semester. The only college course that I was so impressed with that I saved and brought to Europe with me the book and all my notes for, was my Artificial Intelligence course, and I have not looked at them a single time.

Contrast this experience with that of my wife, growing up in Spain. Her memory of the beginning of every school year involves the purchase of brand new textbooks, and especially the sacred process of wrapping them in plastic (basically laminating them with Saran Wrap) to protect them. I totally understand the lusty rush of excitement from having brand new notebooks and pencils and backpack to start a school year (my personal nerd fetish was mechanical pencils), but textbooks never played a role in that; they were always a dingy afterthought.

While I'm on the topic. When I was a teen, in various years, in the utterly inane world of teen fashion, it became "cool" to wear one's backpack full of books both with the straps incredibly long so that the backpack was really resting upon the buttocks, and also to wear it over only one shoulder. I honestly remember being mocked for using both straps (the horror!) in middle school. While this was happening, I remember the grown-ups always declaring, "You will ruin your back!" both about these silly practices, and also in general about the fact that we were made to carry so much weight around. Now that a quarter century has passed, I must say that I don't see any of my peers walking around totally crippled by the weight they bore as teens, so, like "Don't sit so close to the TV!", I have to call bullshit on the "You will ruin your back!" argument, even as I can feel it forming in the back of my throat as a parent.

In Spain – in elementary school, at least – there is no stigma attached to backpacks that also have suitcase-like wheels and extendable handles on them, so the kids going to school look like those carry-on-only business people you see rushing around airports. Presumably this will change in middle school and high school.

</Side Rant>

Where was I? Oh, right...

My daughter's school has posted, on the wall outside, the list of books that each class needs for the coming school year. As you might expect, as a parent, you don't really need to write any of this down, you simply need to walk across the street to the book store and say, "I need all the first grade books," and they will order them for you. In fact, they had a list of registered first graders and checked my daughter off that list when I ordered them a few months ago. "So that's how this little school supplies shop and book store stays in business!", I realized.

The books finally arrived, and I went to buy them. They are more what I would call "workbooks", flimsy, with no real spine – don't get me started! – on which to print a title. They are divided into trimesters, so she won't have to carry all of them each day. The subjects, as best I can judge are: language (Spanish, of course), reading, music, mathematics, and English. Aside from the official list of books, there was an additional list of materials that included notebooks with preprinted five lines – remember those chalk holders!? – for musical notation.

First grade Spanish text books.

The grand total?

195 €

That's $217 USD at the time of this writing.

A Spaniard would not flinch at this price, but as an American coming from a history of free textbooks, I wanted to shout, "You call this Public Education!??" I've asked several Spaniards, including the woman at the bookstore who is benefiting from this racket:

  1. Are any sort of subsidies for families who cannot afford an extra $200 every year for school books?
  2. What happens if you show up to school with no books? Do you still get a free government education?

Both questions were met with the stunned absurdity I saw when my parents asked my Danish coworkers what the illiteracy rate in Denmark was. Neither the bookstore owner nor the other parents in the bookstore had ever considered or seen the consequences of such scenarios. In fact, I was told by everyone present that the total I was required to pay was the lowest they had ever seen.

By all means, don't get me wrong. The textbook market in the US is completely absurd! Most of them are horribly out of date, and, due to the nature of the market, the manufacturers respond to the whim of their largest customer, Texas, a state whose legislators often struggle with concepts of "What is science and what is religion?" However, the Spanish model, in which a sibling only one year behind another sibling cannot reuse the same textbooks because another edition is "required", is also total bullshit.

The Future

This month, on summer vacation, my daughter spent some time with a third cousin who is two years older than she is, and is about to begin third grade at a Basque private school. After much parental clamor – try getting all the parents of an elementary school class to agree on something! – last year, she will begin this coming school year with all of her textbooks on an iPad!! Their apparent yearly bill is closer to 350€, also known as the price of an iPad, and the iPad can be reused year after year. I totally embrace the concept of e-books, but even I feel some old-man-skepticism when it comes to, "Okay, class, everyone turn to 'page' 57!". The amount of distracting tomfoolery that an eight year old can get up to on an iPad when she should be doing classwork seems too high, but no doubt The Future will prove me wrong.

As I was formulating this post in my mind, a videographer Facebook friend of mine shared this Kickstarter video, which he worked on for many months, that is right on topic. Contribute if you'd like.