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The Affordability Question

How have school systems come up with the financing to start and sustain 1-to-1 laptop initiatives for students and staff?

BY SCOTT LaFEE

A few years ago, the trustees of the Van Meter Community Schools challenged their new superintendent, John C. Carver, to bring the small, rural K-12 district in central Iowa and its 600 students into the 21st century.

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John Carver

“They understood that technology is the world in which kids live now. That was my charge,” says Carver, who had been the district’s high school principal. He enthusiastically embraced the challenge, even though Van Meter was an unlikely hot spot for revolutionary change in digital education.

Still, in at least one important and tangible way, Carver and his administration have gone a fair way toward meeting the board’s challenge: Every middle and high school student in the district now carries an Apple MacBook laptop computer. Kindergarten and elementary students have access to mobile computer carts. Social media has become the district’s lingua franca. Key district staff members use services such as Twitter to disseminate news 24/7. Combined, they claim almost 20,000 followers. The librarian alone has almost 10,000.

“Iowa is the story that no one’s picking up,” says Carver proudly. “We’re a flash point in transformational education.”

Not the only flash point, of course. One-to-1 computer initiatives that place laptops and other digital devices directly in individual students’ hands have been around for more than a decade, though perhaps they have never been more popular. Official figures for the number of school districts nationwide with 1-to-1 programs are scarce, but a survey a couple of years ago by education consultants Hayes Connection and the Greaves Group projected that at least half of the country’s 2,500 largest school districts would have such programs in place by 2011. These numbers obviously don’t include smaller districts such as Van Meter. Whether these programs represent “transformational education” is a matter to be debated. The questions here are ones that every top administrator asks: How much does a 1-to-1 laptop program cost, and how do you pay for it?

Then and Now
A decade ago, 1-to-1 laptop initiatives seemed fantastically exotic. Districts that launched them were viewed as futurists dancing on the edge of the digital frontier.

“The technical capabilities weren’t there in most places. Neither was there a readiness in many communities. Districts were financially comfortable, not necessarily driven to innovate,” says Scott Drossos, president of Pearson, an international educational publishing and technology company. “Now, many districts are in the mode of necessity. They’re grappling with issues of performance and accountability. The status quo is no longer acceptable. They’re looking for new ways to achieve, and digital education is one way.”

Mark Edwards is one of the educators showing the way, first as superintendent of the 48,000-student Henrico County Public Schools in Virginia and now in Mooresville, N.C., a 5,500-student K-12 district, located a half-hour north of Charlotte. His ambitious laptop programs routinely garner headlines and reports of academic achievement. Hundreds of educators visit Mooresville each year to see first-hand how the schools achieve better learning through laptop use. Indeed, the district’s logo sports the image of an open laptop. (Click here for related story.)

Since he launched his first laptop initiative in 2001, Edwards says the landscape has changed significantly.

“There have been huge advancements in hardware, software, infrastructure and public understanding about the idea of laptop education,” he says. “People understand this is the direction of the future. Ten years ago, the conceptual framework of moving toward digital resources was still being shaped. A lot of people needed convincing. Now, the technologies are standardized and ubiquitous. Everybody has them — laptops, tablets, smartphones. The economy’s tougher now, but selling the idea isn’t.”

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Students in Van Meter, Iowa

Not that creating and launching a successful 1-to-1 program has become easy.

“It’s more than just hardware and software,” says Frank Florence, senior director for education marketing for Cisco, a multinational technology company whose services include providing digital systems to schools. “A successful 1-to-1 program is about change management, building new leadership models. It’s about getting students, parents, staff, the community involved and invested. When a district throws down a lot of money on a new initiative and nothing happens, it quickly becomes a negative article in the local newspaper. Successful programs require superintendents with vision and the capacity to pull it off. They need to be backed up by a strong chief information officer and people who can make things happen.”

And making things happen requires money.

Cost of Business
Launching and sustaining a laptop initiative is an expensive proposition. For that reason, districts often begin with modest pilots or roll out programs incrementally, a grade or two at a time. These days, few, if any, public school districts have budgets to finance full-service 1-to-1 programs.

Instead, some seek outside assistance. Private foundations promoting education reform and development offer grants with millions of dollars available. The grants come in all sizes and with varying strings attached. Some are awarded on a onetime basis; others can be renewed annually, often based on previous results and achievement.

Single-issue public bonds are another option. Some districts have had great success appealing to their communities to approve bonds to pay for specific projects. The key, of course, is having a plan that persuades parents, civic leaders and the community at large that it is money well-spent. Often, even that is not enough.

Some districts find partners, public and private.

“One important partner in many cases is the state education agency,” says Andrew Zucker, a senior research scientist for the the Concord Consortium, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit education think tank that has studied the efficacy of 1-to-1 laptop programs. “In Pennsylvania, for example, the state has paid for more than 140,000 laptops that are used in almost every high school in the state. Maine was the first state to commit to a statewide 1-to-1 laptop program, which has continued for a decade.”

Usually, districts mix and match resources. When Larry Vick, superintendent of the 4,200-student Owensboro, Ky., district, began the process of creating a laptop program, he used federal stimulus money to pay for curriculum development.

“Initially, when the money became available, the idea was to divide the stimulus funds out among the schools, which would develop their own individual plans about how to spend it — and they had a lot of ideas,” he says. “Many wanted to use the money to hire teachers, which we could certainly use. But I realized that if we did that, we were going to waste the $2.5 million. Hiring was too temporary. We’d have these teachers for just a couple of years, and once the money was gone, so would the teachers. Then people were going to be mad.”

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Owensboro High School Principal Anita Burnette, Owensboro, Ky.

Instead, Vick persuaded his school board and administration to use stimulus monies to pay for a handful of teachers — mostly pulled from within the district — to spend two years creating digital curricula for a 1-to-1 laptop program.

“We hired math, science, language arts and other specialists,” Vick adds. “We guaranteed them two years to develop a critical mass of great lessons. We wanted the lessons to be relevant and exciting, to really use the technology. That way, when we actually rolled out the program, all of the teachers would have a foundation to work with.”

Vick subsequently financed the actual rollout by taking dollars from a variety of sources, most notably an existing construction fund that provided $2.3 million to purchase 2,400 laptops for students in grades 5 through 12, along with $50 backpacks to carry them.
Matt Akin, superintendent of the Piedmont City School District in Alabama, says his administration initially considered seeking different grants to fund a 1-to-1 program. (Click here for related sidebar.)

“We realized, though, that if we wanted to move forward quickly, we would have to finance the initiative with local funds,” he says. “We ended up purchasing our laptops on a four-year lease through Apple. The yearly payment is about 3 percent of our overall budget. That made the decision easier. I felt we could find 3 percent.”

To fund a pilot program this year in the Mendon, Ill., schools, Superintendent Diane Robertson collected the necessary $270,000 by tapping multiple sources.

“We’ve reallocated some existing budgetary funds, in part because we’re not necessarily going to be spending as much on printed materials. We’ve used some professional development grants, got some help from the local schools foundation and a local bank.”

Carver, the district leader in Van Meter, Iowa, did the same, pulling funding from, among other places, a 1 percent county sales tax dedicated to education and monies levied for physical plant improvements and equipment.

“The money is there,” he said. “You just have to set your priorities.”

Family Contributions
An alternative resource is students and their families — the direct beneficiaries. Some school districts have launched programs requiring families to purchase laptops, frequently at a much-discounted, large-volume price. But these efforts are relatively rare and sometimes met with significant parental dismay and resistance. Most affected families simply can’t foot the bill. 

READ MORE:

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Matt Akin: One district's story of financing laptops

“Our parents pay a $50 user fee that is adjusted down, based on income,” says Akin. “To make the fee easier, we have removed all other school fees.”

Superintendent Ed Settles, who is in the early stages of developing a 1-to-1 program in the 3,000-student Jersey Community Unit School District 100 in Jerseyville, Ill., just north of St. Louis, Mo., says it’s important everybody involved in a laptop program has an invested interest.

“When people have skin in the game, they tend to better understand the need, develop expectations, embrace the cause and support the movement,” he says. “I support partnership development. This is truly a community project, not simply a district initiative. … I stressed to our board that we must be all-in and dedicate the resources necessary to initiate and maintain the conversion. Some funds can be asked of parents, but this should be very well-thought-out and consider the population and culture of each specific community.”

Long-Term Investment
Settles knows he’s in for the long haul, something experts say isn’t always appreciated by administrators and educators bedazzled by the flashy technology and abundant hype.

“Traditionally, when folks decide to go forward, there’s a lot of focus on the devices,” says Pearson’s Drossos. “It’s about getting every kid a device. But the bigger, deeper change is about practices. At the heart of any successful program is a change in instructional approach. You’re changing the learning environment and how kids are taught. To do that well, you have to create a plan to do many things in parallel, with a deep, broad support system.

“It’s true,” agrees Zucker at the Concord Consortium. “The cost of 1-to-1 laptop programs involves much more than the initial cost of the hardware. Teacher professional development needs to be a significant expenditure. Service and support is another big expense, and there are others.

“School administrators need to know this and plan accordingly. So, too, do politicians, including governors and state legislators. I believe that many decision makers do understand the changes that effective use of technology can bring about for teachers and students. However, decision makers may underestimate the expense, the time and the persistence that is required to bring about change.”

Zucker and others talk about the total cost of ownership, which involves not just the purchase (or lease) price of devices, but also the monies spent to build and sustain the appropriate infrastructure, including technical support; the inevitable costs of upgrades and updates to equipment and software; repair and replacement costs; the expense of teacher training and professional development; and myriad other budgetary line items.

Technical Support
Paying for all of the requisite tools to create and sustain a laptop program is not a singular capital investment. Experts say the costs can and should be divvied up among different budget categories, including textbooks/instructional materials, curriculum development, technology funding and facilities upgrades. Spreading out the costs (rather than lumping them into a single budget item) can help ensure sustained funding and success.

Over the long run, funding for technical support is particularly crucial. That might seem an obvious point, but an international literature review in 2010 of 1-to-1 computer programs found many school districts stumble badly when once-enthusiastic teachers find themselves “not only working in a change paradigm, but also as the computer engineers” — in other words, attempting to fix their own computers.

The dilemma may not be entirely unavoidable. The range of technologies and providers of digital devices and services has grown exponentially. It’s not just PC versus Apple anymore. It’s laptop versus netbook versus tablet versus smartphone. Most districts have relatively modest technical support staffs. The typical ratio of technician to digital device can be as high as one to several hundred.

Who keeps all of these machines working? Does the district hire someone else to do it?

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Diane Robertson, superintendent in Mendon, Ill.

“I’ve heard some superintendents say that many companies that acquire contracts for outsourcing do not understand or cannot fulfill all the requirements, which can be complex,” says Zucker, of the Concord Consortium. “For example, schools are purchasing a wide array of devices that need to work with computers, from cameras to iPads to e-book readers to probes and sensors of various kinds. Whose job is it to support the use of these devices? Is that job outsourced, too?”

It’s a major consideration and one that experts say needs to be addressed before students get their devices. “You should plan for the long term,” Drossos says. “What will things be like in three to five years? Most districts can find a bit of budget to drop a laptop into the hands of every student, but what happens next?”

For districts with limited resources, the answer is often to find a single, full-service provider — not just tech support, but for virtually every component of the program for the entirety of the program.

At Community Unit School District 4 in Mendon, Ill., Superintendent Robertson knew she lacked the internal resources to create an organic plan. “We needed somebody to help us pull everything together. We wanted a single-source platform that integrates digital course content that teachers could manage, with assessments built in. We wanted instant feedback on how students were doing and a program that allowed everything to be dumped into a grade book.”

Ultimately, she and the district chose Pearson.

Carver at Van Meter wanted a similar fully developed, full-service program. He didn’t want to shop around for components. “I wanted turnkey with all support — hardware, servers, training for our information technology folks, security, everything.”

His district opted for an Apple-based program.

Shifting Costs
While the costs of technological change can be daunting, several administrators interviewed also pointed to real and anticipated savings elsewhere in their budgets. Carver says one immediate and obvious cost savings has been textbooks. The district doesn’t buy them anymore. Printing costs also have declined, he says, with all assignments turned in electronically.

In Mooresville, the district formerly spent $79 for a single social studies textbook. “Now,” says Edwards, “I’m spending less than $40 for all of the online content for each student.”

Think of laptops and other digital devices as tools for cutting other costs, he advises. “They can free up a lot of resource allocation. Students don’t buy graphing calculators anymore because they’re embedded in their laptops. It’s the same with dictionaries and

thesauri. We save on postage for reports and grades that we once mailed to parents. There are real cost efficiencies.”

More broadly, Florence, of Cisco, predicts school districts will find other ways to save money as they become more adept in the digital world. “I think you’ll see more districts working with other districts. One district may develop a particular competency in, say, professional development, and they’ll share it with other districts,” he says.

The details still need to play out — and be worked out. Schools no doubt will stumble as they learn. And nothing will come cheaply, though prices likely will continue to decline.

Those who have initiated 1-to-1 programs insist money is not the biggest hurdle. “If you can carve out of your budget one to two dollars a day per student per year, you can cover everything in a laptop program except infrastructure,” says Edwards.

Asked if that’s what he tells visiting superintendents seeking the secret to his success, Edwards replies, “My answer is basic: Find a model that’s simple, clear and works for you.”

Scott LaFee is a writer with the University of California San Diego Health Sciences in San Diego, Calif. E-mail: scott.lafee@gmail.com
 

 

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