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Report: School technology price tag as much as $750 million

Published February 13, 2014 10:17 pm

Education • Advisory panel says cost of plan is more than double Lockhart's estimate.
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House Speaker Becky Lockhart unveiled details of her plan to invest as much as $300 million for technology in schools Thursday, but a soon-to-be released report suggests the price tag to put devices in every Utah student's hands might actually be much steeper.

A draft of the report, from a work group associated with the Governor's Education Excellence Commission, pegs the cost of one-to-one devices in Utah schools at as much as $750 million for the first year and $300 million a year after that. The report is set to be formally released in early March.

"The governor is supportive of technology in schools," said Tami Pyfer, the governor's education adviser, on Thursday. "... Again it's how to manage the amount of funds it will take to get us to a to a one-to-one ratio in the schools, and is that doable given the budget constraints we have at this time?"

She said the governor's top priorities remain boosting per-pupil spending by 2.5 percent and funding enrollment growth.

"Those are things he doesn't want to sacrifice," she said.

According to the draft report obtained by The Tribune, expenses would include at least one full-time technology specialist at every school at about $90 million a year; regular replacement of devices at $55 million a year; and teacher training at $105 million initially and $40 million a year after that.

Lockhart, however, said Thursday she doesn't anticipate the cost being nearly so high. Lockhart said she had seen the study and believes there are redundancies and inefficiencies in the report.

It includes items she said can be streamlined by drawing on private providers and taking the program statewide.

"This is a number [$300 million] that we are very comfortable with," Lockhart said.

Package deal • The speaker envisions private-sector tech companies combining resources and putting together bids to offer entire packages — teacher training, hardware and software — that would be reviewed and certified by a state advisory board.

The board would be made up of members from the software and hardware industries, state school board, Utah Education Network, the STEM Action Center and two members from public education. The board would establish criteria and hire a consultant to create a master plan for the state's technology education.

"We're not reinventing the wheel here. We're not having state government create computer programs," she said. "These are all things available on the market … by private providers, entities that will come together and partner with our schools."

Regardless of the exact price, the question of exactly how to pay for Lockhart's ambitious legacy project remains unanswered.

"Let's try not to be so focused on the money," Lockhart told members of the Republican House caucus Thursday afternoon. "If this is the vision we want to have for education, if this is where we know we're headed … then we'll find the money."

Lockhart said she is looking everywhere in Utah's state budget, from education to transportation, but doesn't see an appetite for a tax increase to pay for the proposal. One possible source of funds might be savings in the $35 million spent annually in Utah schools for traditional textbooks that could be shifted to digital upgrades.

Lockhart and Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, who is sponsoring the bill creating the project, said they are looking for $50 million to upgrade the wireless "backbone" in Utah schools, equipping them to handle the technology.

The roughly $250 million remaining will go to training teachers and buying devices and software.

Even if lawmakers appropriate the money this year, schools likely won't start seeing the impact until possibly the 2015-16 school year.

"We don't want anyone to get the idea that next fall every child is going to have a device," Lockhart said. "That would be doing it wrong. That would be doing it backwards."

How to pay? • House budget chairman Mel Brown, R-Coalville, was blunt when asked about where the money for Lockhart's initiative would come from: "We have no idea."

He said that lawmakers are still waiting for new revenue projections before they know how much they have to spend.

"The biggest issue is the funding, and I don't think we really know what the funding elements are yet," said Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton. "The concept, I think, is extremely sound."

He said it's well known that Utah has the lowest per-pupil spending in the nation. "One of the solutions is technology," he said. "It's not the only solution, but it's one of them."

On Thursday, the Legislature's public education budget committee recommended allocating a total of $100 million for Lockhart's initiative — essentially a placeholder until legislative leaders settle on a final number.

The committee debated recommending less, possibly using some of that money instead for a 2 percent boost to per-pupil spending.

But members quickly backed off that idea after the co-chairman, Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, urged the committee to be "realistic" and show support for the proposal.

He said trying to take money from the technology proposal could create confusion and potentially "backfire on us."

"Just look at the landscape and see this is going to happen," Last said of the speaker's proposal. The committee instead decided to still recommend a 2.5 percent per-pupil spending increase but without tying it to money for Lockhart's proposal.

School districts could apply to the state board for grants they could use for wireless infrastructure, training or devices, choosing any of the state-certified technology providers.

"If we're wanting to achieve a certain vision and go to a certain place, it's going to take a real effort," said Gibson. "I'm asking my colleagues to buy into a vision of where we're going to be in 10 years from now, where we're going to be 15-20 years from now."

State school board members also expressed support for the proposal Thursday.

In fact, it's one of the board's priorities for the year, though board chairman David Crandall noted that the board wants to see ongoing money for the proposal come from new revenue for education.

Vice chairman Dave Thomas said board members were involved in the drafting of the bill.

"The possibility to transform the classroom — truly transform it with teachers if they have the appropriate professional development — is amazing," Thomas said Thursday.

He said giving each student a device has been a board priority for the past four years. He said the speaker's bill includes all the principles needed to make such a program successful.