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California Assemblymember Ash Kalra Introduces CALPIRG-Backed Bill to Make Textbooks More Affordable

SACRAMENTO, CA (February 5, 2021) – Joint authors, Assemblymembers Ash Kalra (D-San Jose), Rudy Salas (D-Bakersfield), and Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), and bill co-sponsors, Michelson Center for Public Policy and the California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG), today announced the introduction of AB 403, the Fair Access to College Textbooks Act. The Act requires that higher education institutions entering into automatic billing agreements include consumer protection provisions for students.

“As virtual learning and digital materials grow in usage and versatility, I am proud to author AB 403 to ensure that students have basic consumer protections in this new age of the textbook market,” said Assemblymember Kalra. “This critical piece of legislation will help protect students’ financial welfare at a time when so many are facing increasing or unexpected costs associated with navigating higher education during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The Fair Access to College Textbooks Act was prompted by the United States Public Interest Research Group Education Fund’s (U.S. PIRG’s) February 2020 report, Automatic Textbooks Billing: An Offer Students Can’t Refuse, funded by the Michelson 20MM Foundation. The report analyzed the college textbook industry’s automatic billing framework. Rather than a substantial step towards textbook affordability, automatic billing is a tactic for publishers to recoup market share (and increase sales revenue) lost due to the proliferation of free and cheaper alternatives to commercial textbooks found online. U.S. PIRG’s research found that automatic billing fails to save students money and reduces faculty and student choice around instructional materials. Class action lawsuits filed by students and independent booksellers are now pending in federal court and allege that college publishers are colluding to reshape the marketplace to the detriment of student consumers.

Automatic billing allows publishers to add the costs of course materials directly into a student’s tuition bill. Under this model, students typically receive access to a platform of online learning materials, including digital books, homework assignments, quizzes, tests, educational videos, and other multimedia content. However, a student's access to these materials is time-bound and usually expires at the end of the semester. Since they never owned a physical product and only the official campus bookstore can sell automatically billed materials, students are unable to recoup costs by buying or selling used materials. As a result, automatic billing makes it difficult for students to shop around, obtain, and retain affordable textbooks.

“Automatically billing students for course materials chips away at the already limited options students have in the textbook marketplace,” said Cailyn Nagle, Affordable Textbooks Campaign Director with CALPIRG. “To find the best deals, students need more options and more information so that they can find the materials that work best for them--and their limited budgets.” 

If AB 403 passes, post-secondary students in California would need to opt-in to having the course materials charge added to their tuition bill. This requirement would save students from having to navigate the complicated opt-out process if they find out that they can get the assigned materials for a better price elsewhere.

“All Californians deserve to be protected from predatory hidden fees, and college students are no exception,” said Assemblymember Bonta. “The cost of attending college is simply too high, and for so many students, every penny counts. This bill takes on the textbook industry and gives students more choice.”  

Additionally, the Act requires that the price for materials must be significantly less than what a student can acquire similarly from any other sources. If a contract’s pricing is based on factors like a students' major or the number of class credits that semester, the implementation of an automatic charge must be approved by a student election, as would any subsequent increases of the charge.

“During these challenging times, we need to make sure that our students have the tools they need to succeed and create a brighter future in California. This means making textbooks more affordable and equitable for everyone,” states Assemblymember Salas.

“The schemes created by publishers to increase revenues victimizes those who can least afford it; low-income college students who are struggling to get by,” said Dr. Gary K. Michelson, founder and co-chair, Michelson Center for Public Policy and the Michelson 20MM Foundation. “We must help the next generation gain better access to the instruction and materials they need to succeed, rather than adding to their financial burden through hidden textbook charges.”

For more information, contact Geoffrey L. Baum, executive director of Michelson Center for Public Policy, at media@michelsonphilanthropy.org.  

AB 403 is Authored by:

Assemblymember Ash Kalra was first elected to the California Legislature in 2016, representing the 27th District, which encompasses approximately half of San Jose and includes all of downtown. In 2020, he was re-elected to his third term. Assemblymember Kalra is the Chair of the State Assembly Labor and Employment Committee and also currently serves as a member on the Housing and Community Development, Judiciary, Transportation, and Water, Parks, and Wildlife committees.

Assemblymember Rudy Salas was first elected to the California Legislature in 2021, representing the 32 District, which includes a portion of the city of  Bakersfield as well as the cities of Arvin, Avenal, Corcoran, Delano, Hanford, Lemoore, McFarland, Shafter, and Wasco. Assemblymember Salas serves as the Chair of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee as well as on the Veterans Affairs, Water, Parks & Wildlife, Governmental Organization, and Business and Professions Committees.

Assemblymember Rob Bonta was first elected to the California Legislature in 2012, representing the 18th District, which includes the cities of Oakland, Alameda, and San Leandro. Assemblymember Bonta currently serves as the Assistant Majority Leader, he is also on the Appropriations, Communications and Conveyance, Governmental Organization, and Health Committees.

AB 403 is Cosponsored by:

The Michelson Center for Public Policy is a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization that propels legislative change through meaningful collaboration with elected officials, government agencies, and civic leaders to achieve positive outcomes in education, equity, medical research, and animal welfare.  The Michelson Center for Public Policy is an affiliated but separate organization from the Michelson Philanthropies network of foundations (Michelson 20MM Foundation, Michelson Found Animals Foundation, and Michelson Medical Research Foundation). It complements the Michelson Philanthropies’ thought leadership and expertise with bold and effective advocacy.

California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) is a statewide non-profit and member of PIRG, the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups, that works to protect consumers and public health from threats to our health, safety, and financial wellbeing. For more information on CALPIRG visit www.CALPIRG.org.

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