Smart Schools: Bonding A Tech Boondoggle

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The $2 billion question: Is today’s iPad tomorrow’s floppy disk?
The $2 billion question: Is today’s iPad tomorrow’s floppy disk?

On Election Day, voters will be able to pass judgment on the $2 billion Smart Schools Bond Act. If approved, the state will be authorized to sell bonds primarily to help schools pay for “classroom technology and high-speed internet connectivity.” It’s not emphasized in promotional materials, but funding will be available for security technology, such as surveillance cameras. Private school students will be able to borrow Smart School equipment.

The 56 school districts located primarily in Nassau County will be eligible for up to $90.5 million in technology funding, based on a formula that weighs wealth statistics heavily. If districts’ detailed technology plans are approved, the proposed eligibility ranges from Island Park ($236K) and Oyster Bay-East Norwich ($250K) to Freeport ($5.9 million) and Hempstead ($9.7 million). Money from the sky. What can possibly go wrong?
Quite a bit. This could turn into an historic turkey, a technological trail of tears that actually messes up schools.

New York is committed to implementing online Common Core tests for grades three to eight (PARCC assessments). Even well-equipped school districts say that they just don’t have the computers or the bandwidth to meet the testing requirements.
The state budget passed last spring eliminated New York’s bank tax, cut corporate tax rates and raised tax exemptions on multi-million dollar estates, so simply increasing direct aid to school districts for technology wasn’t fiscally practical.
This bond plan was devised, even though long-term borrowing to pay for short-term operations is unwise. Asking taxpayers far into the future to pay for stuff they’ll never get to use is obnoxious (in some political circles, it’s called a “Nassau County Steamer”).

2015’s super cool tech stuff will be door stops years before the bonds are paid off. Some of it is already going away. Some tablet manufacturers are pulling out of the entire product category (consumers want devices with phones in them).
Last week, a Nassau County Superintendent of Schools spoke at an Albany symposium on Smart Schools, describing his district’s iPad initiative. Students use iPads to complete homework assignments, which are coded according to Common Core skills acquired. Meanwhile, there are a lot of schools that have no broadband access at all. There is a need to bring equity to technological training and access to our state’s schools.

Asking 700 school districts to come up with their own plans and their own choices for hardware, software and online services is going to increase inequities. Some are going to make bad choices, some are going to be sold a bill of goods by vendors, and the one-shot money will be gone.

Without planning, staff training and the setting of realistic goals, these devices can quickly become glorified film strip projectors. Many Long Island schools wired classrooms for closed-circuit television in the 1970s. Mostly, it reinforced how much kids liked watching television in school.

Putting handheld devices like iPads and Chromebooks and other devices with limited capabilities into the hands of every student in New York sounds to some like it might fix something. It will not teach students how to write better, to calculate better, to think clearly and independently. It will teach them to be good consumers of popular technology and toys.
Most already are. Problem fixed.

Most young people, even in schools with outstanding technological resources, don’t seem to learn how to deal well with tech that’s unfamiliar, like a different operating system or a new version of software. We don’t teach coding or basic computer science in most schools. We teach Best Buy, and it’s a useless skill.

So what are we really doing here, and why? Smart Schools, the way I keep seeing them described, are drone schools, for drone bees who don’t question what they are fed. Perhaps that is the idea.

Michael Miller has worked in state and local government. Email: mmillercolumn@gmail.com

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