Policymakers throughout all educational levels are wrestling with the cold, hard truth that the original funding of new equipment and software is the tip of the funding iceberg. In the ’80s we called this the “hidden costs.” In the ’90s we were so excited about all the new gadgets that we forgot to worry about anything else. Now, in the new century, we are wondering how we can afford to keep the tools our administrators, teachers, parents and students are finally putting to good use.
As the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) states in their Total Cost of Ownership white paper, “While many government and private programs provide the means of obtaining the much-needed technology for schools, there are few provisions for the necessary ongoing support of these technologies. School districts, having installed much of the technologies needed for classroom, administrative and community communications functions, are fast becoming aware of the support problems and need to budget for the ongoing support costs.” These monies are often the last priority of any school entity.
With the revolving threat of federal funds elimination for E-Rate and EETT (Enhancing Education Through Technology) funds, districts must find their own reliable and ongoing funding sources, and state and federal leadership would do well to help calculate and take into consideration total cost of ownership. Seeing the big picture is a necessity.
General Budget Technology Funding
To compound the funding dilemma, many education leaders have yet to realize that technology is no longer a separate entity. Technology use is an everyday occurrence in every school in every district, at one level or another. Unfortunately, many education policy leaders have not revised their general budgets to support the proven ways technology improves the work and goals of the local education agencies (LEAs). Leaders who consider technology a “black hole” (as one administrator once told me) are burying their heads in the sand and should be made aware or trained.
Those who set the general fund budget should be informed of the successes from districts that have recreated education budgeting and work practices. These districts take advantage of technology to increase business efficiency and advance student learning, thus saving money and truly educating students while helping meet No Child Left Behind mandates:
- One of the strongest organizations of high performing school districts west of the Mississippi River is the Western States Benchmarking Consortium. These districts constantly score above the norm on tests, have high graduation rates, and have lower dropout rates when compared with similar and dissimilar demographics. All of these school districts were early adopters of technology and have used it to support teachers, students and their business teams.
- Assistant Superintendent John Q. Porter of Montgomery County Public Schools, an outstanding school district on the East Coast, stated in the June issue of District Administration magazine, “Our enemy is time, and technology is the only way [to combat that]. Still, there are people who don’t understand the importance of technology because they fear it. One of the first things you realize in technology is that technology is change; those who fail in developing systems don’t understand the dynamic of change.”
- Two years ago, Poway Unified School District was going to hire 32 new teachers. The technology department used their data warehousing tool to show district leaders they needed only 25 teachers. The leadership followed their advice instead of following old trends, and their estimation proved correct. The district saved approximately $350,000 in salaries — more than the cost of the data warehouse installation.
- Student assessments have changed. Trish Williams and Michael Kirst, in their article “School Practices that Matter” (Leadership Magazine, March/April 2006), state high performing districts must have assessments that align with state standards and have the ability to quickly inform teachers of results. Online assessments give policymakers a choice of how to properly assess students to support learning, with 24 hours or quicker result reporting. This should be a common practice to support the students and meet NCLB mandates.
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All budgets, despite project or department, must be completely reviewed to see how technology can support and make the end product more successful. Additionally, policy leaders must continue to research what new innovations will be appearing in the near future and analyze how these new tools will impact education programs in their local education agencies. All must be in a continual learning mode and work together to envision how we can help put students on a path to continual intellectual growth. Following are some steps to start down the path toward properly utilizing general funds for the support of technology.
Funding Where There was None
Step 1: Evaluate and Prioritize
Data-driven decision-making is a fundamental part of this first step. Generally, there are three areas from which data should be gathered: instructional and business demands, the infrastructure to support those demands, and the equipment and software needed to meet those demands.
- Instructional and business demands: these demands are driven by district objectives, community expectations, state and federal mandates, funding constraints and labor union guidelines. Expectations are increasingly high for districts to produce students who perform well on standardized tests and exhibit good citizenship. The business side of education exists to support the learning activities that will meet these expectations.
- The infrastructure to support those demands: LEAs’ infrastructure consists of multiple components. Every two to three years, structural components should be reviewed. Telephones, data, alarm, networks and general physical condition of buildings must be assessed to understand what repairs and upgrades are needed. Funding is available in many states under deferred maintenance, or in operational and maintenance restricted funds. If a comprehensive plan is developed and followed, districts can ensure this major building block for support of education will be set in place.
- Equipment and software to meet those demands: with the first two areas in place, an intelligent decision can be made regarding the purchase of software, computers and other related equipment that will work with the existing infrastructure and meet the district’s instructional and business demands.
Attaining these goals may require more than one year. It is also highly probable that goals will change over time. It is wise, therefore, to create a multi-year plan that is agile and modifiable.
Part of supporting technology is providing a maintenance, replacement or obsolescence fund, typically fed from districts’ general funds. Too often a majority of technology dollars are spent simply maintaining the status quo. The challenge is to meet the continual need for growth in the areas of technology for online assessments, home-to-school communication, 24/7 access to learning resources and virtual or distance learning.
Step 2: Partnerships
LEAs can benefit from partnerships with local and national businesses in two major ways. First, businesses use general funds to support technology, and business leaders can share funding and maintenance best practices with educational policymakers. Second, business partners can donate equipment or money to support technology innovations in education.
True partnerships support all parties involved. Such partnerships can be large or small, because any amount of funding will help. Large corporations often have several different funding sources. IBM, for instance, has the Academic Initiative and an alliance with the Computer Science Teachers Association to provide free software and curriculum planning. Intel offers multiple grant programs, as does Microsoft. Smaller companies, even the mom and pop donut shop, can and will support their neighborhood school.
Step 3: Form Foundations
If a community understands its local districts’ funding constraints, they are often willing to extend financial assistance by creating a foundation. While foundations are helpful overall, they should be avoided for individual school sites, as they generally increase inequities that already exist. Schools in more affluent neighborhoods may have foundations that raise $100,000 or more annually, while schools in less affluent areas may only raise $5,000 or have no foundation, and will obviously be unable to support their student learning projects.
Step 4: New Uses for Old Technologies
Thin client (a network computer without a hard disk drive, which is designed to be especially small so that the bulk of the data processing occurs on the server) is one way to use old equipment to run new software, where old computers can become “dumb terminals” and run new applications from the server. This solution requires a sound network foundation and server structure, but can reduce replacement costs and decrease technology support staff needs.
Step 5: Give Grants a Chance
Where are the grants? Too many education decision-makers and leaders, especially at the high school level, do not realize that state and federal grants are much easier to obtain if their free and reduced lunch count is 40 percent or more. It is important for educators to have accurate data and a high percentage in this area for funding sources such as E-Rate, EETT, or other related sources. In addition, ferreting out grant money can augment general funds to support student learning with technology.
The Road to Affording Ed Tech
General budget funding must be realigned to match the needs of local education agencies. This will help both the learning and business aspects of a school. These funds may initially need supplemental support, but educators must be aware of the benefits of technology. We must intelligently commit funding for the educational growth of all our children.
Last year, the Poway Unified School District had to replace approximately 3,000 Windows 95 computers. These computers would not run the Web browser needed for their data reporting tool or the majority of teacher Web pages. The memory and speed of the computers were insufficient to run most of the enterprise-wide educational software available over their wide area network (WAN) and local area networks (LANs).
The district had less than $1 million per year available for this project. Leasing was discussed. The amount the district had for support was ongoing, so the question was, could a lease agreement that guaranteed a vendor an ongoing fixed dollar amount for several years also guarantee the district a continuing flow of up-to-date technology equipment?
The district obtained a four-year lease with three vendors, with an agreement at the end of four years to rotate the machines out with a new lease agreement. Additional cost savings included the maintenance agreement — vendor responsibility for all repairs during the lease period.
Districts throughout New York and New Jersey have discovered how to use thin client technology to make old computers new again. During the late 1990s, thin client was dismissed as too slow and too expensive to be useful in most school districts. This perception has changed in business, as in education, with greater network speed via WAN and LAN technologies, and tremendous server cost reductions.
In a thin client environment, workstations do not store programs but rather receive everything from a system of servers (one server for about 20 workstations). When servers were $20,000 each, this was cost prohibitive. Today, servers that can support thin client cost about $3,500, allowing quick communication with workstations and a cost-saving solution.
Total Cost of Ownership
How can policy leaders find the true cost of supporting equipment? The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) and the Gartner Group have an online tool that will assist in the estimation of this cost for various levels of technology.