I've resisted this particular topic all weekend because as a technology person and someone who handles the technology for an agency that's one part school I really want digital textbooks. But there's a misperception here that needs to be addressed.
From the New York Times...
With California in dire straits, the governor hopes free textbooks could save hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
From Tech Blorge....
This is not something that will happen over night, but the move is inevitable. California alone spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year on printed textbooks, and with the state in financial crisis, it is going to have to do something to start saving money, and it’ll have to do it soon.
Let's do the Math here. 1 Student going through 4 years of High School will use about 32 text books in their school career. This is based on 4 years with Math, English and Science classes that run a whole year plus 2 periods of electives which change mid-year (most High School students have 6 periods but one of those can be attributed to a non-text book class like P.E. or Shop). That gives us 4 Math books, 4 English books, 4 Science books, and 16 elective books (2 periods a year with 8 books a piece overall).
Now text books have high cover prices but they're bought in bulk by school districts. I checked with a friend of mine who works for one of the school districts we deal with and he said the average price of a text book is around $35. So that gives us $1,120 in textbooks. But keep in mind textbooks are usually kept for about 5 years (often times even longer). That puts the actual per-student total for print at about $224 when you consider all those books are being used by 5 other students.
On the other end of the spectrum the Kindle DX costs $489. Now we can assume Amazon would give school districts a huge break on cost if they order in bulk but the Kindle's also an electronic device which is much easier to break than a physical book so I'd think that would probably be a wash (a 20% fail/break rate would wipe out the 25% discount) . Just to make it fair we'll also disregard the additional IT support personnel that would be required to maintain the Kindles (the maintenance would probably be minimal but you still need someone to deal with RMAs and such).
So being generous the cost for a Kindle is about $489 per student (assuming a reasonable 4 year life span the kindle could be used by one student all the way through)
But we still need books. I'm writing off the pipe dream of "open source" textbooks because schools could do that now simply by printing books out and they don't. Parents aren't going to go for kids learning from a wiki-like textbook. Education's just too important to leave it to chance.
That said I looked at about 10 programming books on Amazon and found e-books for the kindle are discounted by about 34% over their paper counterparts. If the same holds true for textbooks you'll be looking at a cost of $147.84 over 5 years. But just to be ULTRA fair lets assume the schools cut an incredible licensing deal and cut that number in half to $73.92. That brings the grand total for a Kindle DX + books to about $562.92.
And again I was very generous to the Kindle, the cost would almost certainly be more. You have hardware costs for broken ones, you have the extra ones you have to stock because you'll need to provide replacements should one fail, you have phone support which needs to be provided for students who might have problems, you have protective covers you'd probably have to buy (to minimize damage), you have to buy a kindle for every teacher you have (which factors into the cost per student) and so on.
My numbers are VERY rough but no amount of cajoling is going to erase such a disparity. There are many advantages to e-books in schools but cost is simply not one of them and I think we need to start being honest about that.