From Moscow to Dayton, 11 Idaho schools are only a few months into their technology pilot projects.
When lawmakers convene in Boise in January, they may have to decide whether to put more money into more such pilots without much evidence from the field. Lawmakers will face a $3 million request from Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna — money that could be used for more pilots.
But that’s only a request. Luna says $3 million might not be enough to satisfy lawmakers who want to fund a “considerable” classroom technology upgrade. A $3 million request would not be a “slam dunk,” Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde said, because some lawmakers may not be convinced that a second round of pilots is necessary.
On Jan. 6, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter presents his budget proposal, which might not mirror Luna’s request to boost K-12 spending by 5.4 percent.
The 11 schools sharing $3 million in grants seem to share no other common thread.
They use very different devices, from laptops in Sugar City High School to interactive whiteboards in Moscow Middle School. In other schools, iPad tablets or small Chromebooks are the device of choice.
And their goals vary. Middleton High wants to give students skills for life; Weiser’s Park Intermediate School wants to improve reading. At McCall-Donnelly High School, a five-star school, iPads facilitate studying and note-taking. The two-star Parma Middle Schools seeks to bridge an achievement gap. It’s sandwiched between a high-performing grade school and high school.
The pricetags range from an $891,200 Chromebook project in Kuna Middle School to the $54,596 Park project.
The pilot program encouraged local school officials to brainstorm after voters rejected Luna’s Students Come First laws, which would have provided every Idaho high school student a laptop.
“They’re all doing different things because they locally determined what their needs are,” said Idaho Education Association President Penni Cyr, a member of the state Education Department team that reviewed grant applications in June. “I hope we keep that in mind.”
The concept of local control was not lost on Otter’s education reform task force. The group — consisting of Luna, Goedde, Cyr and 28 other education stakeholders — treaded carefully around the technology question. Members called for uniform broadband and WiFi in the schools. They said every student should be equipped with a “technology device” but deliberately skirted details.
The 11 pilot schools got word of their grants July 1, less than two months before school started. Some had to acquire charging stations, install Internet security software, wait for upgraded WiFi service or train students and parents on how the devices will be used in class.
Luna says he is “very impressed” to see the schools’ students more engaged and learning at their own pace, but it would be “premature” to request more than the $3 million. His budget request incorporates all 20 recommendations from the task force, including first steps toward a teacher salary ladder and to reverse recession-era cuts to school budgets, but has no more money for classroom technology.
Luna says some lawmakers want to put more money into technology, but he doesn’t want them to siphon funds from any task force recommendations; lawmakers should fund the entire package, he said.
If they fund a second round of technology pilots, they won’t lack for bidders. This year, the state received 81 requests for a total of $19.5 million.
Ultimately, funding pilots is a double-edged sword, Goedde said. Pilots let schools experiment with approaches that can be replicated elsewhere. But the grants give some schools a funding boost in a state where the Constitution mandates a uniform public school system.
Luna sees it differently. The program’s long-term goal is technology in every classroom. “It‘s not to create winners and losers.”