U.S. Official No 'Textbook Rebel'

August 31, 2011

There is absolutely no truth to the rumor that the U.S. Education Department's Hal Plotkin will appear at a protest on textbook prices today dressed in a 10-foot-tall mascot costume as "Textbook Rebel."

But despite some last-minute uncertainty Tuesday afternoon, and almost certainly to the dismay of the textbook publishing industry, a key adviser to Under Secretary of Education Martha J. Kanter will be a star attraction this morning at the suburban D.C. launch of a national campaign arguing that textbook prices are "out of control."

It appeared for a time Tuesday that department officials were having second thoughts about the official's appearance at an event that is part of a longstanding battle between textbook publishers and consumer groups.

The agency sent around an advisory mid-afternoon with the headline "U.S. Department Of Education’s Senior Policy Advisor Hal Plotkin to Join Launch of Textbook Rebellion Cross-Country Tour." It said that Plotkin -- a longtime journalist and author who is an architect of the Obama administration's plan to develop high-quality, free educational resources to help community colleges and other institutions expand access -- would join students and professors to kick off a 30-campus tour to promote TextbookRebellion.org, an online petition drive led by the Student PIRGs, Flat World Knowledge, an open access publisher, and other student and consumer groups.

In addition to information about the event at the University of Maryland at College Park, the news release included extensive details about the textbook tour and contact information for officials of PIRG. It also noted that the event would feature two monstrous mascots: the evil "Mr. $200 Textbook" (who a PIRG official later said represents the "monopolistic" textbook companies cranking out the unaffordable textbooks that PIRG says students are increasingly choosing to forgo) and "Textbook Rebel," a SpongeBob SquarePants clone who rescues students from the publishing scoundrel and encourages their use of rented, electronic and open-access textbooks. The missive read quite a bit like something that PIRG itself might have written.

Just 15 minutes after the initial advisory went out, though, the department's press office sent out an e-mail seeking to "recall" the earlier message. (If only that were possible.)

Reached a short time later, the event's organizer, Nicole Allen, textbook advocate for Student PIRGs, said that Plotkin had called to tell her that he would be appearing as planned. Plotkin would "kick off the press conference," she said, describing the department's policies looking at open educational resources and, "to the extent that it's appropriate given his position," discussing the difficulties that many students have affording textbooks.

A department spokeswoman reached late Tuesday afternoon confirmed that Plotkin would still attend. When the agency sent around a revised advisory in the early evening, its headline said that Plotkin would "Promote Textbook Affordability at National Student Event." The revised release said, as it had previously, that Plotkin would help "launch a campaign for affordable textbooks," and the statement noted that the six-week tour would visit at least 30 campuses in 14 states.

But it neither mentioned PIRG nor identified TextbookRebellion.org as the name of the campaign.

Department officials declined comment on what had prompted the switcheroo in the news releases, and whether the original release had suggested too strong an advocacy role for Plotkin.

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