Dumping Old Computers

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At a time when funding for educational technology is under fire on Capitol Hill, it's hard to oppose a well-meaning piece of legislation designed to increase the number of computers in the nation's K-12 schools. But as currently drafted, the proposed New Millennium Classrooms Act is not only bad public policy, it could also end up costing the very schools it seeks to help.

It is hard to say no to friendly members of Congress, or to well-meaning local business men and women looking for a new home for an aging machine.

The legislation is designed to encourage businesses to donate used computers to schools by expanding the tax breaks they receive for doing so. Currently, companies can take a tax deduction when they donate a computer that is no more than 2 years old. Under the legislation, the tax deduction would be changed to a more substantial tax credit and, more significantly, would be expanded to include 3-year-old computers. An even larger tax credit would be provided when the equipment is donated to schools within designated empowerment zones, enterprise communities, and American Indian reservations.

By a 96-2 vote, the U.S. Senate approved the measure earlier this year as an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization. Although the fate of its parent bill is unclear, the overwhelming support displayed for the donated-computers bill suggests that it could eventually be approved.

According to the Detwiler Foundation, which had been involved with promoting the donation of computers to schools, the bill was necessary because companies just weren't donating enough equipment. The foundation had advised Congress that companies found that the existing tax deduction "does not fully meet their business-cycle needs." In other words, the 2-year-old computers were still too valuable for the businesses to donate. But a 3-year-old computer, now that's another story!

The truth of the matter is that technology is already moving into the nation's schools—and at a relatively fast clip. In its recently released survey on K-12 technology spending, Quality Education Data reported that in the 1998-99 school year, K-12 districts spent $6.7 billion on educational technology—a 24 percent increase over the previous year and the highest annual percentage increase in the past decade. Nearly half of that spending, QED estimated, was for hardware.

Similarly, as part of their applications for support under the E-rate telecommunications-discounts program for the current school year, schools reported that they would be acquiring close to 4.5 million new computers to connect to their new networks and the Internet, according to figures compiled by the Arlington, Va.-based consulting firm Funds For Learning.

The truth of the matter is that technology is already moving into the nation's schools—and at a relatively fast clip.

In another measure, Education Week, using data from Market Data Retrieval, reported last fall that in 1999 the number of students per instructional computer nationwide dropped below six for the first time ("Technology Counts'99," Sept. 23, 1999). That is down from one computer per 19 students in 1992. Even more impressively, the ratio of students per multimedia-capable computer has been cut in half in just two years—from one computer for every 21.2 students in 1997 to one for every 9.8 students last year.

As more and more hardware flows into schools, the new challenge becomes helping teachers integrate it into the classroom—and managing the long-term costs of operating and maintaining that multibillion-dollar investment.

School districts are beginning to learn the lesson that businesses learned when they began building networks in the late 1980s—that the "total cost of ownership" (what's known as the TCO) of a computer over its lifetime represents much more than the cost of the hardware itself. There are costs associated with software, technical support, maintenance and repairs, and staff training.

As the University of Southern California professor Lawrence O. Picus wrote in a white paper on school budgeting commissioned by the BellSouth Foundation: "Schools should take advantage of any and all sources of funds for their technology programs, but should be aware that securing one-time funding for the purchase of computers or other equipment is, by itself, inadequate for operating an important program."

Last year, the Consortium for School Networking launched an initiative to help school administrators better understand the issues surrounding total cost of ownership. One of the long-accepted principles for controlling ongoing technology costs is that standardizing an organization's computers on a single platform or operating system will, in turn, reduce the long-term costs of maintenance, technical support, and staff training.

The "total cost of ownership" of a computer over its lifetime represents much more than the cost of the hardware itself.

In October, more than 120 school districts participated in an online survey organized by the consortium and the National School Boards Association to find out more about how they manage their tech support. Nearly nine out of 10 of the respondents said that they had "taken steps to standardize the model of computer used" as a way of trying to control their costs.

Even before businesses start unloading incompatible 3-year-old computers, those districts are having trouble achieving that goal. Asked how many operating systems their tech staffs were required to support, 31.4 percent of the overall group said they had to support four or more different operating systems. Among the largest districts, those with 20,000 or more students and many of them in some of the low-income urban areas that the Senate bill is designed to help, the problem is even more acute. More than 56 percent of the technology staffs in large districts are required to support four or more operating systems, and nearly 35 percent are required to support more than five.

At a time when virtually all districts are required to adopt carefully prepared technology plans as a prerequisite for qualifying for state and federal technology support, legislation that encourages the donation of more older computers can only serve to disrupt those plans, increasing the schools' long- term technology costs—and their headaches. The proposed legislation contains no requirement that a donated computer be in line with a district's technology plan or be brought up to the standard of the district's most common computer in order for a business to enjoy the tax credit. Instead, districts would have to spend several hundred dollars per computer to bring older machines up to the district's standard for memory, operating systems, and software applications.

The last thing American schools need is legislation that encourages companies to dump obsolescent machines on their doorsteps.

Occasionally, older stand-alone machines can be used to teach tasks such as keyboarding and word processing. But, as Mr. Picus noted in his paper, "computers purchased as little as three years ago are often obsolete today, and incapable of running the most recent versions of instructional software." In addition, stand-alone machines will be more expensive to support and maintain if they cannot be connected to a centrally managed network.

If Congress wants to promote the donation of computer equipment, it should expand the current tax deduction to a tax credit, but continue to limit it to computers that are 2 years old or less. That would reward those companies that make donations that are truly valuable, not for passing along equipment that was headed to the dumpster anyway.

The lopsided vote by which the donated-computer amendment passed the Senate in March suggests that many members of Congress believed they had found a way to promote technology in the schools at a minimal cost to the federal taxpayer. We hope that Congress will take a closer look—and that school districts will also be careful to consider the ultimate price of such donations.

It is hard to say no to friendly members of Congress, or to well-meaning local business men and women looking for a new home for an aging machine. But at a time when American schools are wrestling with the challenges of installing fast-changing technology, training their teachers on how to integrate technology into their lesson plans, and meeting state-mandated learning requirements, the last thing they need is legislation that encourages companies to dump obsolescent machines on their doorsteps.

Helen Soulé is the chairman of the board of the Consortium for School Networking and the director of education technology, training, and support for the Mississippi Department of Education in Jackson, Miss.

Vol. 19, Issue 36, Pages 37, 40

Published in Print: May 17, 2000, as Dumping Old Computers
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