Another invisible: the budget. I spend a lot of time on amazon.com as part of my job. As chair of the English department, I have keep up the inventory of our resources–a key resource, of course, is our store of books. Every student at my school is required to take an English class, and my department budget works out to be about $1.80 per student per year. Granted, once you buy a book you can use it multiple times–but books also wear out, and our department budget also has to cover, among other things, basic supplies like paper, staples, dry erase markers, and the other necessities that my 18 full- or part-time English teachers usually end up buying out of their own pocket when the department supply runs out around mid-November.
When I get an email that we are a class-set short of copies of an anchor novel in the curriculum, I have to find a way to cover that gap. In a dream world, I'd buy library-bound hardcover copies of each novel, which start at about $20 per copy. Scratch that: in a dream world, I'd supply all of my students with e-readers wherein they can interact with, annotate, and easily carry their texts.
But a class set is 34 copies of a text. At 20 bucks a pop plus tax and shipping, I'm spending almost a third of my entire department budget just for one class set of one book for one grade level. So I go to amazon and place 34 orders for 34 used paperbacks so that each, with shipping, is less than six bucks. Sometimes I can hit a deal and get a whole box new for that cheap, but it depends on the title. These wear out after a few years of being passed from class to class, even though I wrap the books in contact seal. We need them for today's students, so putting off the purchase until tomorrow won't suffice and clear plastic wrap will.
We already stretch our resources: there's almost never more than one teacher teaching a book at a given time, and as soon as they finish, they move the box of books down the hall so the next teacher can begin. When a kid doesn't return a book, they have to replace it either with money or a new copy. We make due with single class sets for multiple sections of students so in many cases there are not enough copies for a student to take home to read.
I looked into e-readers, which looked like a great deal at first. But the costs there ended up compounding: we'd have to buy the e-readers, of course, but we'd also have to purchase electronic copies of the books. These turned out to be the cost (or more) of a new paperback–per title, per student. We'd essentially have to re-purchase our entire inventory except for the Shakespeare plays that are public domain and free on the web. For just my department, that endeavor would mean an initial investment of close to half a million dollars to achieve the ideal. My budget is about .07% of that, so if I dedicated my entire budget each year toward that shift… I don't even want to do that math.
So I head to amazon.com and piecemeal an order for used copies of our anchors. The golden rule: if the cost of the book exceeds the cost to ship it, I pass. Then, over the next two months, the books will trickle in from all over the country. It isn't efficient, and we don't end up with the best materials. It isn't how I'd like to do it, but that's the way to make the budget stretch.