Op-Ed By Joanne C. Simpson The true cost of Baltimore County Public Schools' laptop…
This is a follow-up guest post by Joanne C. Simpson:
Baltimore County Public Schools plans to expand its tech initiative, despite an apparent lack of funding — short- and long-term — as well as pointed criticism from some Board of Education members, and downward trending standardized test scores in so-called “lighthouse” schools with the one-laptop-per-student program.
The controversial digital conversion is currently slated for all county schools grades 1 through 6, as well as three pilot high schools in September. That rollout is pared back from previous plans, which included laptops at least middle school-wide.
Still, the long-discussed program cost of $205 million might be closer to $350 million — just in the first six years, according to pending contracts and other sources. And taxpayers would be on the hook for nearly $60 million in laptop leases each year, and more with software contract renewals and increasing tech expenses — in perpetuity.
Among other possible pending issues not widely known:
The school board on Tuesday is set to vote on another $41 million to fund laptop-linked interactive classroom projectors with average life spans of just five years.
The proposed 2016-17 budget would pull nearly $20 million from the school system’s surplus, though administrators haven’t detailed where the money would go. The gap in proposed funding for the digital initiative next year is $24 million.
“We are hook, line and sinker, absolutely bought and paid for by the technological-educational complex, and it’s almost scandalous. I’m hoping it never becomes a scandal.” School Board member Michael J. Collins
A “locked-in” scenario for laptop leases recently described by the administration seems a marked reversal of the scenario of limited financial responsibility and numerous “outs” when the program was presented to the school board and public two years ago.
The school system might not need to expand the program much at all — despite a sense of inevitability in the
community and pressure from Superintendent S. Dallas Dance — because BCPS is in striking distance of meeting current lease obligations, and could slow the expansion or even end the overall contract, according to school officials and documents.
Some of the math, so far, seems to go like this:
The Board of Education authorized the school system to spend $205 million to lease up to 150,000 HP EliteBooks from Maryland vendor Daly Computers, a close affiliate of Hewlett-Packard. The contract was approved by the board in spring 2014, and the $1,400 laptop/tablets started showing up in classrooms in August that year.
A copy of the Daly contract released to school board members on Friday indicates BCPS is only obligated to pay about $52 million total over the four-year master lease agreement for devices and related costs, such as carts and cases. A minimum obligation was set up in case the county could not find funding for the higher price tag.
With payments already made, BCPS currently has an outstanding “obligation for about $31 million in leases that has to play out over a number of years,” BCPS Budget Director George Sarris told school board members at a Jan. 19 school board meeting. That could work out to $10 million or $15 million a year for the next couple years, until the end of the leases, various documents show.
That bill would not be so hard for the school system to meet.
Yet the proposed 2016-2017 school budget—set to be voted on at this Tuesday’s school board meeting (Feb. 2) —includes up to four times that amount, at $38 million next year. That’s in laptop leasing costs alone, with annual payments of about $60 million through 2021, according to budget planning documents.
(To share your thoughts with the members of the Board of Education prior to the Feb. 2 vote, you can call 443-809-4126 or find their email addresses here.)
The leases “are very, very shaky. We are clearly a victim in this system of the technological-educational complex,” said school board member Michael J. Collins at the Jan. 19 school board meeting. “We are hook, line and sinker, absolutely bought and paid for by the technological-educational complex, and it’s almost scandalous. I’m hoping it never becomes a scandal.”
As part of the proposed budget, the school system is asking the county to pick up $14.5 million in added leasing costs for the devices linked to the tech expansion. School administrators have repeatedly said the $14.5 million would go directly to the schools’ “digital conversion,” otherwise known as Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow (STAT). If approved by the board, BCPS’ proposed $1.5 billion budget is then sent to Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and the Baltimore County Council for consideration.
Various questions about the ins-and-outs of STAT went unanswered by Superintendent Dance over the past two weeks. Dance, who has enthusiastically spearheaded the digital initiative, has said he favors the integrative use of technology, even though there is no independent proof yet of long-term positive learning outcomes. “We know there’s no research out there that shows that giving a kid a device will improve his test score,” Dance has said, adding, in a broad leap of faith: “But getting kids more engaged in their learning will increase test scores.”
In terms of the upcoming budget, Dance did note a total of 168 STAT teachers who aid classroom teachers with the new technologies across the county, a boon to the initiative. Still unclear however: only $1 million is set aside for their salaries under the STAT budget, according to Sarris. That covers about 16 STAT teachers, with average annual salary/benefits costs of about $60,000, Dance noted.
The remaining 152 STAT teachers would then add about $9 million in annual costs to the “6-year digital conversion’s Grand Total Ongoing Cost” of $272 million—which also includes online or video curriculum, professional development, etc.
That virtual-oriented environment is now virtually $312 million.
Confused yet? Similar befuddlement over such numbers and rapidly rising tallies, especially with the budget vote slated for Feb. 2, led to an extensive debate at the Jan. 19 school board meeting and a flurry of emails during the blizzard this past week concerning the budget and future of STAT.
At the meeting, a few board members called for a one-year slowdown in the rollouts to better evaluate student outcomes and avoid signing new leases for thousands of devices. Currently, the laptop-per-student approach, also known as 1:1, is primarily used in 10 BCPS test schools, known as lighthouse schools (in 6th and kindergarten through 4th or 5th), and in all county elementary grades 1-3.
Collins and others expressed concerns about the 1:1 laptop approach on Jan. 19, yet also supported upgrades in technology in schools. (I expressed a similar view as a BCPS parent in comments before the board on Jan. 5).
Said Collins, who had opposed expanding beyond test schools so quickly: “I believe very strongly in technology in schools, but we don’t know how this is all working out. At all. And the info we are getting from the data so far is not good. We are just going awfully fast, and we are going to be spending a couple of billion dollars — that’s with a B — at least on this program in the next 5 to 10 years before we get adequate results.”
Other school board members agreed.
“With so many needs in our school system, I think our spending is not aligned with correct priorities,” said board member Ann Miller, who moved to slow STAT’s device rollout pending “quantitative evidence of success,” and to spend the $14.5 million requested from the county on other priorities. She suggested redirecting the money to health and safety needs (which might include funding to ease overstretched bus routes), as well as hiring more teachers to help reduce class sizes. Many classes in the county are approaching 30 students. “We are in the process of overhauling our school system to accommodate STAT.”
Miller also noted that the program is an experiment, especially among larger school districts. (Some, mostly medium-sized or small school districts, have 1:1 programs primarily in high or middle schools, with the best outcomes in classes of 13 students or fewer, research shows. Overall, results have been mixed (“Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops”), with numerous school districts abandoning such programs mostly because of cost and logistics issues, and a lack of clear long-term improvements in student performance.)
“The deeper we go, the more stuck we will be if, when we get results, we find that they are not what we were expecting,” Miller added. “Our contractors will know we are stuck. What will prevent us from getting thoroughly hosed by our contractors at renewal? And will we be able to sustain this program in the future?”
There was no direct answer from the administration during the meeting. Miller’s motion later failed for lack of a majority vote.
Even Board Chair Charles McDaniels, Jr., a staunch supporter of Dance, expressed misgivings: “Metrics [performance data] would allow us to keep track of the investment we have made, and I agree we don’t have that information,” he said. McDaniels cited increased use of tech in university courses and elsewhere. “I still think we as a county, we as a country are falling behind with our integration of tech in education. I also understand there’s a difference when you’re talking about a 20-year-old student and a 10-year-old student—there are concerns that exist.”
Added Collins: “I just wish we’d be a little wiser and more thoughtful before barging ahead and doing all this in hopes that it will work out.”
Superintendent Dance has slowed the program somewhat from the original plan, so far not expanding it to all kindergartens and middle school grades this upcoming year, partly because of concerns over how device use is playing out in those classrooms. The school system is moving toward pods, or carts, for laptops in kindergarten. Some successes so far have included an overall effectiveness of STAT teachers, mentors who work with classroom teachers to utilize online curriculum and devices, according to various sources. “Their knowledge and enthusiasm are evident,” Collins said.
Top among the problems: digital distraction.
Numerous sixth grade students have broken through “security blocks” to play video games and surf online during class, a problem Dance acknowledged and says he is working to address. This issue has plagued most laptop-per-student programs for years. Hoboken, N.J.’s school district abandoned (“Why a New Jersey school district decided giving laptops to students is a terrible idea” ) their laptop program in 2014, partly because of security and distraction issues. Hoboken school officials couldn’t control which websites students would visit:
“’There is no more determined hacker, so to speak, than a 12-year-old who has a computer,’ said Jerry Crocamo, [a district computer network engineer].
Crocamo installed software called Net Nanny to block pornography, gaming sites and Facebook. He disabled the built-in web cameras. He even installed software to block students from undoing these controls. But Crocamo says students found forums on the Internet that showed them how to access everything.”
Some sixth grade students in Baltimore County duck behind laptop screens in class to watch YouTube, play ESPN Arcade Games, download Snapchat, or look at pictures of Donald Trump’s hair—all during class time, according to multiple sources. Studies show digital distraction is a key impediment to learning and retention (“Media multitaskers pay mental price, Stanford study shows)”.
Still, all sixth graders in the county are set to receive laptops next year.
When asked about slowing the tech rollout in elementary schools (set for 4th and 5th grades), the primary reason Dance cited against delay was that 3rd graders who have the devices now, and have used online and video curricula, would not have devices next year. When asked by board member Stephen L. Verch if BCPS could sever the four-year laptop leases, Dance said: “We can get out of [the Daly] contract.” He added, “we are obligated to the lease.”
Any hint of a “locked-in” scenario was not what Dance and his staff were promoting when the school board first approved the $205 million laptop lease contract over protests from some community members and Collins two years ago.
“‘There are still some critical questions we have to answer,’ Dance said. He said the system can get out of the contract if it is unable to find the money to buy the laptops.
The contract commits the school system only to spending $6.8 million a year for the next four years. Dance said if the school system decides it does not want to continue with the same devices or vendor, it can sever the agreement.”
(Note: About $6.9 million was the annual lease payment only for the first year of the 4-year lease agreement. That number neared $12 million the following year, then $19.7 million, and then $13 million, according to the Daly contract.)
Dance also tried to reassure those worried about possibly negative educational outcomes. From The Sun story:
“‘It is not a rush process. We are going to take our time with it,’ he said. ‘Let’s say we evaluate the vendor and things are not going well. There are outs for this.’
The school system ‘will not be doing anything further if we don’t get the Lighthouse schools right,’ Dance told the full school board at its meeting Tuesday night. Those first 10 schools, he said, ‘will be laboratory schools. We will not be scaling up until we get success with our Lighthouse schools.'”
Yet such success had not been proven before STAT was expanded to all elementary schools by fall 2015, as Collins noted. And standardized test scores already indicate possible downward trends among lighthouse schools vs. comparable non-lighthouse schools in third grade, the only grade that both had the devices and took the standardized exam Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), according to state test score data and a preliminary evaluation. BCPS officials have said they would not evaluate official outcome data until year three of STAT. The scores are public record and can be found here.
Overall costs, meanwhile, appear fluid even now. The current STAT tally doesn’t include another $41 million in interactive projectors, sound systems, and related equipment that would link to the student devices. The contract for nearly 7,000 Boxlight ProjectoWrite 10 projectors is being voted on at a committee meeting before Tuesday’s 7 p.m. board meeting, where Dance’s four-year contract renewal is also up for a vote.
The official average life expectancy of the projectors: Five years.
If approved, that contract would bring the grand total STAT-related costs to at least $350 million for the initiative’s first six years. Long-term expenditures, meanwhile, would surpass $70 million a year, including STAT teacher salaries—a number that would also likely grow substantially, government sources say.
Among other unknowns: Curriculum costs. DreamBox, a Web-based video-game math program could cost up to $635,000 under a two-year BCPS contract approved in 2014. That contract is up for renewal this November. DreamBox is primarily used by children in third grade and lower here. (In a last-ditch effort to convince the board to support STAT, a few teachers recently had students write handwritten notes to board members saying how much the children loved their devices and DreamBox.)
So, again, what is the true cost of this “digital learning environment?”
And the Big Budget Question: Where is this big money coming from?
The primary unanswered financial concern at the moment: Nearly $24 million is needed to meet a total $45.4 million slated for STAT costs this upcoming school year. The proposed budget lists $7.2 million in “budget realignment” savings (found previously by such adjustments as centralizing printing or personnel retirements). Then there’s the requested (though not yet approved) $14.5 million in additional county revenues.
Among possible options: BCPS is apparently looking to raid its surplus fund.
The 2016-17 budget proposes pulling $18.7 million from the school system’s surplus, otherwise known as a rainy-day fund. That money would likely go to BCPS’s general fund, as another $19 million in surplus money did last year; Sarris said he could not list specific uses within the general fund, and that the money goes toward all expenditures. STAT is the primary, un-met high cost in the proposed budget.
Miller later asked if the surplus fund would be depleted each year to shore up STAT. Dance responded no. Such funds are sometimes used as a revenue source with county approval, school officials said, and budgeted amounts are not always spent in a fiscal year and can be added back to surplus.
Yet, in the end, where will the school system get $1 billion or more to sustain an experimental laptop-based program in the next decade alone?
Many more questions need to be asked—not just about ballooning costs to taxpayers but objective evaluation of student outcomes, as well as an exploration of possible detrimental effects of increased screen time, etc. on reading and other essential 21st century skills, concerns revealed by recent studies (“The problem with one of the biggest changes in education around the world”).
My final logic query for now: What’s going to happen to the pricey laptops and sensitive projector equipment in 95-degree classrooms in the dozens of county schools without air conditioning? Likely fallout: hardware stress, irreparable damage and potential data loss, according to such tech experts as Intel, which provides the core processor in BCPS students’ HP EliteBooks.
As for the children, critics also question the cart-before-the-horse logic of putting tech devices before such needs as cooled classrooms and potable water. Some point to heat-related health issues. “A student never had an asthma attack because he didn’t have projectors,” said school board member Kathleen S. Causey, who also opposed next year’s laptop expansion. “A student never had a migraine because he or she did not have an interactive classroom.”
Overall, let’s keep an eye on possible pitfalls of high device usage by children. Young minds are on the line. The American Academy of Pediatrics understands this well, citing studies showing that excessive media use can lead to attention problems, obesity, sleep and eating disorders — and difficulties at school.
Joanne C. Simpson is a former staff writer for The Miami Herald, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and Johns Hopkins Magazine. She is a BCPS parent, college educator, and freelance writer based in Baltimore.
If you are interested in submitting an op-ed on this topic or others, please contact me here.
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