Monday, July 18, 2011

How Should Schools Pay for Technology?

About 25 years ago, I wrote one of my first grants. It was a request from a local nonprofit to a local funder, and the grant request included some small amount of staff time. The main reason that we wrote the grant was to get a computer. We wanted the computer for word processing and for layout purposes. The only computer for our office of ten people was an Apple IIe. We needed something better, but we didn't know how to finance the computer.

Fast forward a few years, and the price of computers has come down quite a bit. At the same time, our reliance on them has increased concomitantly. Twenty years ago, if a computer went down in an office, it was annoying. It might have been used for billing and it was probably a standalone computer. Now, if a computer network goes down in an office, it is a crisis. It affects scheduling, billing, electronic records, databases, email, word processing...

Most of the workplaces I know--whether nonprofit or for-profit--no longer think of computers as special capital expenses, unless they are extremely specialized pieces. Instead of thinking of them as capital expenses, they are treated as operating expenses, as a part of doing business. Depending on the business, they might be replaced every three, four, or five years, but ultimately they are items that need regular replacement.

And that explains why I was a little bit surprised to see that Ann Arbor's school board is considering a .5 mill technology millage for November.

First of all, they are proposing to use bond money (a long-term fund) to pay for a short-term expense. At this point, I think school districts everywhere need to think of technology expenses as items with a relatively short shelf-life; items that need regular replacement and need to be budgeted for within operating expenditures. Most people finance their houses with long-term mortgages, but if they need to replace the dishwasher or the hot water heater, that money really should come out of operating (ongoing) funds, and not be paid for with long-term financing.

Second, even if I thought this were a good idea--and let's say that at this point I could perhaps be convinced--I think the board is going about this the wrong way. Why don't they ask some likely voters first whether this would be supported? And here's a hint: don't ask your most ardent school supporters (for example, PTO Chairs). Do some focus groups with a mix of taxpayers. If it won't be supported, don't waste precious political capital.

I know that many people think technology is really essential. I admit that it has changed my life in ways that I think are both good and bad.

But I was thinking the other day that if I had ever become an engineer (a career path I never considered), I definitely would have chosen civil engineering, because I'm fascinated by the civil infrastructure--water pipes, sewer pipes, water towers, transportation systems--that underlie our cities. And I'm sure that computers make the lives of civil engineers a whole lot easier.

It's worth remembering, however, that the Romans had an elaborate aqueduct system before anyone could print multiple copies of books. It's worth remembering that today's water system and subways in Manhattan were largely built over 100 years ago, by people who had no computers, and many of whom had no college degrees. [See maps of the NYC subway system here.]

In the last few years, I've seen many more high school courses offered that integrate technology. But it's worth remembering that those of us who learned to "keyline" text and "kern" typefaces in the days before computers still learned the principles of graphic design. It is eminently possible to teach most of what we need to know without computers. I don't believe that students would learn any less.

Is it a case that we "must" teach technology? Or is it the case that we "have" the technology so now we want to use it?

If we only use technology to do the same things that we could do without technology (for instance, use an interactive whiteboard to write the same things we would write on a chalkboard), then the technology is being wasted. If we can't afford all the technology that we have, then maybe we can identify areas where we can use less of it. (For instance--could we take all computers out of the K-2 curriculum?)

You may think that I'm wrong; that technology is essential to education today. And if you do, then I would ask you to argue that we need to treat technology as just another operating expense. And for the most part, that means--put technology expenses in the operating budget, and expect to upgrade that technology regularly.


  1. I'm old enough to sort of have missed the technology movement and had to learn lots of techie things as an adult. so I believe that it's important to learn how to use technology, but I don't believe you learn from technology. I can read a book, I don't need a kindle.
    I can take notes by hand,U can write a good paper by hand,I learned about the periodic Table and chem equations by paper and pencil and book, and I didn't need a computer to help with the basics.
    The board is pushing it's luck asking for a tech millage and my guess is that it will be defeated. No one is in the mood to pay extra for an upgrade.
    But you can't tell them that, this will have to play itself out.

  2. Well, as someone who depends on computers a lot and does some IT work, I think it would be difficult to operate modern schools without technology. We don't have to turn it into a fetish, but it gives us lots of options. The main point behind the technology "refresh" the district wants is to continue ongoing regular replacement of outdated models. For instance, newer software will either not run well or not run at all on older hardware. Making updates every 3 to 5 years is, unfortunately, par for the course.

    One of the things I have noticed is that, besides the admin uses (everything from central admin to teachers entering grades and communicating with parents by email-which actually accounts for the lion's share of the district's hardware), the district uses software a lot to provide extra support to kids having problems with literacy and math (FASTT Math, Read 180, and so on). In this sense, they are trying to stretch their dollars by using computers to take the place of the classroom aides they cannot afford. Perhaps not the best of all worlds, but I can hardly blame them for trying.

    As to where the money should come from, of course, it makes sense to fund this from the operating budget - or better still, from an ongoing sinking fund that would have regular funds available targeted for technology. But our system of school funding does not make sense, so districts like AAPS are driven to push as many items as they can onto bonds in order to use their shrinking foundation allowance to fund current operations. (In fact, AAPS used to make regular transfers from the operating budget to the "Capital Needs Fund," where money was set aside for things like computers. Because of budget cuts, they can no longer afford to do that to any great extent.)

    We can pass a bond issue for computers, but we can't pass a millage to pay for classroom aides, or more teachers. We also cannot use a sinking fund for technology. They're trying to avoid the situation where they have to chose between replacing failing hardware and keeping ten or twenty teachers. I'm not so confident we can do without to want to force that choice.

  3. It does the district no good (in fact, I would argue that it does harm) to put forth a millage request with a high likelihood of being turned down--and ultimately, if technology is truly necessary, then technology planning cannot rely on millage renewals every few years.
    As with the athletics decision, I think the school board would do well to go back to the drawing board and look twice at this question--and really try to separate wants from needs. It could be that the technology needs are higher on the back room end (administration and teachers) than on the front end. I know that teachers were perfectly able to teach first and second grade without projectors in their classrooms before, and I'm not at all sure that having the projectors and computers in the classroom at that age makes a qualitative or quantitative difference in instruction.

  4. Keep in mind that you are only focusing on the portions of IT within the district that users/observers "see" on a day to day basis. This fails to include things like cabling infrastructure, data switches, routers, network links between buildings, wireless access points, firewalls, administrative software to manage all of the "invisible" parts of the network.

    No computers get added to a network without the purchase of a number of these "invisible" items. The nice part is that many/most of these items have a longer than 3 - 5 year usable life.

    Quite honestly, as much of your funding will go to the items you do not see as to those you do.

  5. I agree with Ruth, even if it's more convenient upfront to try to pay for technology as a millage, it's overall a bad idea. There's a very good chance this millage could get turned down.
    I much prefer Trustee Stead's idea of a countrywide millage to help pay for things, though three mills is overoptimistic. As these cuts get felt, people will be more inclined to pitch in.
    Also, who says this amount of money is right for technology in 5 years, or 7 years? It's a bad idea to allocate funding to a particular set of issues in a school when the overall funding situation is so fluid.
    They may have to lay off the teachers, to get the buy in for the next millage, the one that'll pass...

  6. The way I see it, Snyder and the current legislature has totally gutted K-12. Proposal A made it nearly impossible for us to even CHOOSE to increase funding for our communities' schools. Therefore, if we have to have a "technology millage" to obtain a little revenue for capital expenses, so that what little money we have for operations can go a little farther, then I am ALL for it.