School Funding and Educational Technology: Less Is More

This year, schools across America will spend an estimated $10 billion on educational technology solutions. Laptops, tablets, and curriculum software are eating up school budgets and forcing districts to make cuts to existing programs like libraries, music, art, theater, and sports. The rush to put a connected device in the hands of every student is often a misguided, yet hopeful, attempt to leapfrog over existing problems by purchasing new technology.

As a former school administrator, I have been on the inside of many budget planning sessions. They generally start the same way each year. The business administrator or superintendent delivers the bad news that salaries and benefits (usually 80-85 percent of the total budget) as well as other fixed costs like fuel are continuing to go up, but the board would like to see a flat budget, or possibly a nominal increase of 1 or 2 percent. Do more with less.

A major technology investment is a rare opportunity. It's usually a one-time event resulting from an unanticipated budget surplus, or the passing of a special warrant article. Often times, it's a last-minute budget proposal that has not been communicated to staff and doesn't align with curriculum expectations.

This type of nearsighted budget planning places a burden on the regular operating budget for years to come. As a result we end up with lots of outdated equipment that we can't seem to throw away. Old desktops, VCR players, and stacks of CDs sit in the corners of America's classrooms collecting dust, but the inventory numbers look good on paper.

Teachers and students don't want to use slow, outdated, archaic equipment. For technology to be routinely and seamlessly integrated in the learning process, it needs to be on par with the technology used in our homes. If that means fewer devices, so be it. Quality is more important than quantity.

Teachers are making hundreds of decisions a minute and often managing 25-30 students at a time. They need the technology to work dependably and predictably. Frustration leads to suppression. Hello, dust bunnies.

Planning and forecasting school technology budgets is a daunting task for school administrators. It should never be done in isolation. Pedagogy and learning goals should drive the conversation and teachers, parents, and students should have a voice in the conversation.

I'm convinced computers have a permanent place in America's classrooms. However, as parents and educators, it's our responsibility to make thoughtful and well-informed decisions about the types of educational technology we purchase for our schools. We can't continue to close our eyes and drop another penny in the wishing well.

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