This is a special blog. It relates to State Auditor David Vaudt and his investigation into schools: whether or not they are spending their current technology funds properly, if new restrictions should be placed on the funds, and if schools should be required to pay back from other funds for tech-related expenses already incurred.
First a little history from my perspective. When technology first began to emerge as a clear and future force in public education, the Iowa Legislature created a special fund in the early 1990's strictly earmarked only for technology acquisition and tech-related uses. With this special funding stream, Iowa schools had few concerns about how to pay for this new classroom component that we knew would be the future of education. Iowa soon became a classroom technology leader. Combined with our fiber-optic classroom network that was providing instant interchange in schools across the state, we became the envy of the nation.
However, at the same time, other funds became tighter in Iowa schools. When our nation's economy was booming in the late 1990's, Iowa schools were being under-funded. Budgets were not permitted to grow. Iowa teacher pay fell further and further behind the national average. Funds were stretched as far as possible to cover the gaps. Then following the tragedy of September 11, 2001, our nation's economy tanked. Iowa's special technology fund for schools was cut. Schools that had already obligated all other funds elsewhere had trouble funding technology. Iowa fell behind in technology as schools limped along by using the Apple IIe's we had purchased in the early 1990's.
Another foresightful tool created by the Iowa Legislature was the Physical Plant and Equipment Levy (abbreviated PPEL and pronounced PEP-pul). It created a fund from local property tax to be used for equipment purchases of over $5,000. Educators asked legislators if that minimum threshold could be lowered, and the Iowa Legislature responded positively by dropping the minimum to $1,500 which could be used for either a single piece of technology or "a technology system." Now this "system" language was key because we all recognized the power and the future of networking computers. Wiring might not cost $1,500, but if it was part of a system, that was O.K.
We were fine for a short while, but the price of technology continued to drop. Computers no longer cost more than$1,500 apiece. Schools had a dilemma. They could buy computers as part of a system, but they could not afford to buy a stand-alone computer for a single classroom. Educators again returned to the Legislature, and legislators again were supportive. They lowered the minimum limit again, this time to only $500.
Somehow in this last correction, the key words of using PPEL for "a technology system" was erroneously left out of the language. The rule allows $500 for a single piece of equipment.
Now this is a problem because we educators have continued our past practice and recognize that our technology is most powerful as part of a unified tech system. We have continued to spend these funds quite appropriately in this way.
Now a decade into the 21st Century, schools are beginning to implement what we have known for considerable time is the future of education, i.e. students carrying ubiquitous portable learning devices, currently in the form of laptop computers. A few leading schools are implementing one-to-one laptop learning initiatives. We are lease-purchasing a number of laptops for a fixed-price for each computer over a four-year period. Included in the per-computer price are the network connections, the wiring, the system servers, the operating systems and software that come pre-loaded on the laptops, training for the staff, and the consultants and technicians necessary for installation and implementation.
This month Auditor Vaudt began questioning how schools are spending their PPEL funds. While purchasing their laptops, schools are also acquiring these other devices and services. He questions if schools should continue to be allowed to implement laptops learning initiatives using PPEL funds. He also questions if schools already with laptop initiatives should be required to refund their PPEL funds from their general funds.
Here's the bottom line. Schools are following a past practice that has been acceptable for nearly two decades. School leaders and school boards are operating in full view of the public and with overwhelming support by our parents and patrons. Does it make sense that any school should only be allowed to purchase computers but not the software that makes them run, the infrastructure that allows them to connect, or the training for staff that makes them effective?
This is a serious threat to the future of education in Iowa. Iowa schools are being asked to get by with less funding this year and the next two years. And we should. Times are hard. But now is not the time to place more restrictions on school budgets. Technology is the future of our society and our 21st Century workplace. Technology literacy is a 21st Century skill both by common understanding as well as under Iowa Code. Our laws and our rules should be promoting and propagating the integration of technology into our classrooms, not setting up road blocks.
Whether it is by rule interpretation or legislative action, Iowa schools need to be allowed to use their technology funds for either a single piece of equipment or a "technology system."