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Budget News in the News

separating rule

January 26, 2014

Daily Gazette
Sara Foss Column: Thinking it Through

Cuomo could better spend school money

Before I moved to New York, I lived in two states — New Hampshire and Alabama — where any effort to raise taxes to fund school programs was met with icy stares, criticism and, ultimately, defeat.

Opponents often wondered why schools needed more money, when all you really needed to know was how to read, write and perform some basic mathematical functions. I was always baffl ed by this line of argument; was it really so impossible to understand that the world was changing, and that the needs of students in, say, 1985 might be different from students in, say, 1945?

I always swore I would support local schools, partly as a result of living in communities that always seemed loathe to do so.

But I’ve finally met an educational initiative I simply can’t back: Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $2 billion Smart Schools bond act, which would pay for computers, tablets, high-speed broadband and wireless Internet connections in schools.
Now, I can see that the world of 2014 is different from the world I grew up in, that kids need to know how to use computers and having access to the Internet is a vital and essential part of life. But I question whether taking on so much debt to purchase technology that will soon be out-of-date is really such a great idea, especially when a lot of kids already have access to computers, smartphones and tablets. And I wonder whether technology is really the greatest need for New York’s schools, especially when Cuomo’s budget address was met by calls from superintendents to boost education aid that can pay for personnel and programming.

“There are some schools where the most sophisticated equipment they have is the metal detector on the way to the classroom, and that is just wrong,” Cuomo said in his State of the State address.

But when I heard Cuomo’s remarks, I began to wonder which schools he was talking about. Are there kids in Schenectady who have never seen or touched a computer? Are there kids in the small, remote Gilboa-Conesville Central School District who don’t know what the Internet is? Curious, I touched base with a handful of local districts last week to learn more about the technology available to Capital Region students. And while there does appear to be a need for an upgrade, there’s also a sense the money could be better spent.

“One of the reasons I’m not overly aggressive with technology is that it’s a race you can’t win,” said Laurence Spring, superintendent of the Schenectady City School District. “As soon as you get it, it’s obsolete.”

And there’s little research suggesting technology has “an impact on actual learning,” he said. The bond act “would shift investment away from the people who teach kids to shiny new equipment.”

The district has “a variety of things” available to students, such as iPads and laptops that can be moved from classroom to classroom, Spring said. And though many of his students don’t have computers at home, the vast majority of high schoolers do have smartphones.

“A lot of our technology is somewhat dated,” Spring said, estimating the school’s computers are between eight and 10 years old.

“We certainly have technological needs,” Spring said, “but when I make my budget and I make decisions about where to cut, and it’s technology versus reading teachers, guess what we cut. More than we need kids to have computers, we need them to be able to read.”

Not everyone feels negatively about the bond act.

Steve Trodler, technology coordinator for the Oppenheim-Ephratah-St. Johnsville Central School District in Fulton and Montgomery counties, said the bond act could help provide much needed enhancements to his schools. He estimated between 30 and 40 percent of the kids in his district don’t have the Internet at home.

“As a rural district, we’re at a real disadvantage,” he said. “Our children are isolated. We’d like to have a device in every student’s hand. In urban districts, children can take a short bus ride to a museum. For our students, [the Internet] opens up the world to them and allows them to be part of the new global society.”

The district has high-speed Internet in every classroom and has plans to connect its three school buildings with fi ber-optic cable. And most classrooms have SmartBoards — an interactive whiteboard — projectors and computers.

Ruth Reeve, superintendent of the 345-student Gilboa-Conesville Central School District in Schoharie County, said her school is in pretty good shape technologywise because it has high-speed broadband, computer labs, iPads and other devices. But she still has a technology wish list that includes providing students with “a virtual desktop” that can be accessed on any of the school’s computers and outside school, as well. About 30 percent of her students, she said, lack the Internet at home.

Even so, Reeve thinks there might be better uses for the $2 billion.

“I’d rather see that money go to the schools,” she said, noting she recently had to lay off the district’s only business teacher.

After speaking to Trodler and Reeve, I could see why the bond act might strike some people as a good idea. Children who lack access to the Internet are missing out, particularly in rural and urban areas. But maybe there’s a better way of targeting funds — assessing need, school by school, and providing money for critical technological upgrades. Most of the children I know are middleclass kids with such a surfeit of opportunities to play with gadgets and get online that their parents set limits on their “screen time.”

During my research, I learned about the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, is a consortium of states, including New York, developing computer-based K-12 standardized tests tied to the new Common Core learning standards. One superintendent told me New York eventually expects all assessments to be conducted on computer and that the only way to make this feasible is by providing every student with their own computer.

Which raises the question: What is the $2 billion bond act really about? Is it really about creating the 21st century classroom and preparing students for college and careers? Or is it about creating a more efficient and streamlined system of standardized test-taking — and enriching tech companies while we’re at it?

The PARCC website seems to believe better standardized tests can make students smarter.

“Most current tests just require students to fill in the blanks,” the website explains. “PARCC’s computer-based assessments will be much more interactive and engaging.”

Well, great. But I remain unconvinced the best way to help New York’s struggling students is to give them fancy new technology and more sophisticated standardized tests.