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Saturday, December 24, 2005

Laptops -- Absolutely! Teacher Pay -- Well, I Suppose...

Now that Christmas vacation gives me a break from running debate tournaments and early-morning one-act play rehearsals, I have time to comment on Governor Rounds's new education plan. Our fair governor seems to think that the way to improve South Dakota education is to provide laptops to every high school student in the state. Governor Rounds says, "The reality is that if you want to provide a good education, a laptop is going to be part of it."
Of course, while the governor views laptops as essential to education, he's willing to direct the state to fund just $13 million of the projected $39 million required for the statewide laptop outfit.

Of course, the governor's commitment to technology in the classroom (and now in backpacks, backseats, and wherever else the kids will forget those computers) still appears to outweigh his commitment to funding another arguably essential component of education -- teachers. The Argus points out that Governor Rounds has also proposed $3.5 million for a school efficiencies program to boost teacher pay. It works like this: the state would match funds that schools can save by cutting other programs if those funds are then directed toward teacher pay. So if schools find other ways to tighten their budgets -- cutting arts programs, for instance, or eliminating extracurricular opportunities or textbook purchases -- the state will send some money to increase teacher salaries. Total local outlays would remain the same; statewide, education funding would increase by at most the $3.5 dollars, less than a tenth of what the entire laptop program would cost the state and the local districts.

Our governor appears to have made his classroom priorities clear. He believes laptops are ten times more valuable than making it easier for teachers to afford to remain in their chosen profession.

To understand the governor's mistaken priorities, let's run some back-of-the-envelope projections for Montrose High School, my place of employment. We need 77 student laptops. To keep up, the teachers will likely need laptops as well. Let's suppose we strike a reasonably good deal and get decent laptops for $500 a pop (the Aberdeen American News reports that the governor expects costs of "less than $1,000 apiece for computers with three-year leases, software and warranties"). 77 student laptops plus 15 staff laptops = 92 computers @$500 = $46,000. Let's be optimistic and assume that rounding up to an even $50,000 covers the costs of setting up the software, networking, and security for the new machines. $50,000 -- that's equal to the salary of two new teachers... or a raise of $2500 for every teacher. Now, consider that the governor's money is one-time money, so once Montrose gets its laptops, Montrose is on its own for maintenance and replacement costs. A laptop network that size will require at least one dedicated computer support person, who likely will demand a salary greater than that of any teacher in the building. Let's suppose the computer tech person gives us a break and works for $40,000 a year. Suppose we need to replace just 1 out of 20 machines each year -- that's 5 new laptops, another $2500. The school's costs each year for mere maintenance and replacement will be greater than their initial buy-in with the assistance of the state's matching funds. We've already invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in computers, and we wonder why school budgets are getting tighter every year.

On the merits of laptops in the classroom, see Steve Hemmingsen's December 12 comments. I am also pleased to direct you to comments from some South Dakota lawmakers who think laptops might not warrant such a prominent place in our list of education priorities. Senator Jerry Apa of Lead, a Republican like Governor Rounds, questions the governor's focus on technology:
"Since when did laptops become an entitlement?" Sen. Jerry Apa, R-Lead, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, asked. "If the schools are in trouble now financially, how are they going to come up with their match? How are the smaller school districts going to afford a support person? What about children whose parents can afford the Internet and those who can't? What are we going to do - subsidize the Internet? It's an interesting offer, but the practicality of it is just not there," Apa said.
I don't know if we can count on the Legislature to increase teacher pay, but let's hope comments like Apa's indicate that the Legislature will at least keep us from sinking our money into another technological boondoggle that will benefit Gateway more than the students of this state.