Gov. Rick Perry proposed Wednesday that Texas abandon using traditional textbooks in public schools and replace them with computer technology.
"I don't see any reason in the world why we need to have textbooks in Texas in the next four years. Do you agree?" Perry asked participants at a computer gaming education conference in Austin.
During his wide-ranging speech, the governor offered some new ideas for boosting student performance and defended his education record. Perry, a Republican seeking re-election this year, also addressed a dispute with Democratic challenger Bill White over Texas' dropout rate.
Paper textbooks get out of date quickly, Perry said, sometimes even before they reach the classroom. He noted that since he took office in 2000, some schools have used textbooks saying Ann Richards was governor. She served from 1991-95.
Perry said using computer software to teach students allows the curriculum to be updated almost instantly and said children learn through technology, including math computer games.
"There's obviously opposition (to switching to totally computerized material), but there's always opposition to change," Perry said. He said the switch would have to be done cost effectively and that he didn't yet know whether such a move would save money. The governor said he wants to explore the proposal when the Legislature meets in 2011.
Rep. Mark Strama, an Austin Democrat who also attended the gaming conference at Advanced Micro Devices, said he's interested in pursuing that goal as well. He said lawmakers took a step in that direction last year by allowing schools to spend textbook money on electronic instructional materials.
Texas is one of the biggest clients for U.S. textbook publishers, so the content of the state's school books can have a nationwide effect. Because there's no legislation yet laying out Perry's idea, it's unclear how it might affect the marketplace if it's approved. Strama said it may be that the legislation would provide schools an online alternative to paper textbooks rather than ban them outright.
This is the right time for schools to invest in technology, with Apple Inc.'s recent launch of the iPad and similar products that are likely to follow, Strama said.
Perry said students who have no computer at home may obtain access as technology keeps developing and costs come down. Strama said that's part of the answer, but that he sees a move away from textbooks as an opportunity to ensure that children have computers available.
"This is the way to solve the digital divide problem for children who don't have access to technology at home, because if every child is getting something like an iPad or a tablet (computer) that has all their instructional content on it, it also is something they can use for other purposes when they're at home," Strama said.
White's campaign said the Legislature already has given the State Board of Education authority to review some online materials and add them to the approved list for schools to use, but the state board hasn't done so. Spokeswoman Katy Bacon asked why Perry hasn't urged the education board chairman to speed up the process.
In his speech, Perry touched on Texas' high school dropout rate, acknowledging that there are improvements to be made. He repeated his suggestion that high school-age teens be required to be enrolled in a traditional school or a "virtual" school online before they can get driver's licenses.
There are different ways of calculating the dropout rate, and Perry and White dispute the numbers.
Perry's campaign says the dropout rate is 10 percent. White's campaign cites studies showing the rate may be higher, possibly above 20 percent. Bacon said Perry and state officials don't know what has become of about 30 percent of students who do not graduate or get a GED credential within 10 years.
"There's a whole category of kids that is simply lost in the last five years," Bacon said.
The Texas Education Agency says the high school dropout rate is 10.5 percent, according to a definition that all state governors have agreed upon. The four-year graduation rate is 79.1 percent, the agency says. That doesn't include dropouts, student who continue in high school for a fifth year and those who receive a GED.
Perry said White's method of calculating dropouts includes students who die before graduating.
"If a child dies they count that as a dropout. I think that's a little harsh," Perry said.
But the White campaign said statistics show the number of students who die doesn't account for the gap.