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Published in Print: May 7, 2003, as Budget Crises Lead To Delays for Technology

Budget Crises Lead To Delays for Technology

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Braking a decade-long drive to install telecommunications networks and computers in schools, budget crises are forcing districts in an increasing number of states to cancel planned systems upgrades and replacements of aging computers.

To make matters worse, administrators report that more and more computer technicians in schools are being laid off, just as older computers are no longer covered by maintenance contracts and begin to break down more often.

"It's an absolute disaster—I don't even know how to begin," said Neil Holster, the director of technology for the West Milford, N.J., school district, where the technology budget has shrunk to 20 percent of what it was two years ago.

Mr. Holster had planned to replace about a third of the 4,700- student district's stock of 1,000 computers last year. But that plan was canceled, and he doubts the upgrade will happen this year either.

Neil Holster

As it is, some of the district's oldest computers, at 5 years of age and counting, are "already failing," he said, and they are concentrated at just a few schools. He worries that those schools could lose the ability to use computers for classroom instruction.

In Wisconsin, budget problems have prompted plans by the state to discontinue its TEACH block grants to districts for technology spending.

That program, which stands for Technology for Educational Achievement, has contributed about $530,000 annually to the Madison school district, which has used the money to replace older computers for the past few years, said Mark H. Evans, the director of technical services for the 25,000-student district in the state capital.

Yet even with that state support, Mr. Evans said, more than half the district's computers are at least 6 years old, and about a quarter are more than 8 years old.

"If we were a government or business enterprise with this pitiful level of desktop technology, we would not be able to function," Mr. Evans said.

Now, he added, "we're going to be worse off."

Targeting Technology

All these concerns reflect a big comedown from a few years ago, when states were pouring money into educational technology and related teacher training.

The budget difficulties in most states and localities have made technology money ripe for the plucking, said Steve Smith, a senior policy specialist who studies school technology spending for the Education Commission of the States, based in Denver. "There's a rule of thumb within education: You always cut what you can postpone."

Mr. Holster of West Milford knows firsthand how that rule of thumb works at the district level. "A one-line cut [from a school technology budget], and they get a hundred grand," he said, referring to the cost of updating the computers, server, and software of a single school in his district.

Balancing the urge to skimp on technology budgets, however, is the pressure from many parents to have computers in schools, as well as a belief by many school boards and superintendents that technology is essential to meeting the requirements of the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001, some observers say.

That federal law requires that districts make extensive use of data on student achievement, which can require sophisticated technology tools for teachers and school administrators. What's more, the law sets goals for teachers and students on using technology more effectively.

But the federal law cuts both ways, educators say, because it places other nontechnology financial demands on districts. Those demands, they say, could prompt districts to delay computer upgrades and replacements to avoid teacher layoffs or other cuts that could directly affect academic performance.

In addition, ma ny school leaders remain skeptical of the notion that 5-year-old computers need replacing, especially when they're still functioning.

A Mixed Blessing

The dependence of many districts on state funding for computers has been a mixed blessing, some officials say.

Charlie Garten, the executive director of educational technology and information services for the 33,000-student Poway Unified district near San Diego, said California poured "a flood of equipment" into the rapidly growing district's high schools at a rate of about $1 million per school over the past four years.

The state's "digital high school" plan also has chipped in $45 per student annually for maintenance of the technology.

Mr. Garten said the district "couldn't, on the business side, go back to using paper. On the education side, our kids expect to be able to research papers to work collaboratively [online]." He said 1,200 of the district's 2,000 teachers have Web pages. "In our virtual classes, kids are doing things at home that teachers post [online]—it's the educational environment."

But because of California's continuing budget crisis, the state canceled the computer-maintenance funding last year—just as thousands of 3- and 4-year-old computers slipped out of warranty protection, according to Mr. Garten.

That happened "just the time we're getting our budget cut—so how are we going to support it?" he said. "The effect is just beginning to be felt; we're going to really get clobbered over the next couple of years."

In fact, Mr. Garten said, district technology administrators had planned for the "worst-case scenario." But "then the governor announced there's another $4 billion we're short," he said.

Many educational technology officials expressed the view that, when difficult budget decisions must be made, teachers are more important than technology.

But Bob Moore, the associate superintendent for technology for the Blue Valley school system in Kansas, enrolling 37,000 students in a high-tech suburb of Kansas City, said it's not always as simple a decision as it might seem. School leaders, he said, need to understand educational research and do the math.

To begin with, he said, research suggests that slight changes in the ratio of students to teachers have not been shown to lead to gains in learning.

So increasing the pupil-to-teacher ratio by one student per classroom across a district, he said, can save hundreds of thousands of dollars—money to keep technology services alive—with no harm done to learning.

'People Will Scream'

Despite all the bad budget news, school technology administrators express hope that they can hold their systems together and that technical support and maintenance money will rebound in a year or two.

Among the strategies and stop-gap measures they are using to keep their technology programs running are partnering with businesses that will help them pay for some upgrades and replacements, leasing computers and purchasing extended warranties, and using students and staff members to do simple computer maintenance.

Keeping the technology running has an ethical component, argues Mr. Moore of the Blue Valley schools.

"Once you have really made the technology from the instructional side a truly integral part of instruction, you can't take it out—you have an obligation," he said. "To pull it out would be really foolish—you're kind of reneging on a commitment you made to your patrons."

Others suggest that any breakdowns in technology will sharpen awareness of its importance within school districts.

"When the lights go out on the technology, it will be noticed, and quickly," Mr. Holster predicted. "When this equipment starts to fail, people will scream and scream loud."

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Vol. 22, Issue 34, Pages 1,16

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Correction: 
This story gives the incorrect title for Bob Moore of the Blue Valley, Kan., school system and the wrong enrollment figure for the district. He is the executive director for information technology. The district has 18,600 students. In addition, Steve Smith's affiliation was incorrect: He is a senior policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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