Minnesota schools face challenges in paying for classroom of the future
ST. PAUL -- School leaders across the Twin Cities area are scrambling to put 21st century technology in the hands of students, but finding a way to fund the classroom of the future isn’t easy.
Educators have lobbied state lawmakers for new funding to purchase things such as laptop computers, iPads and Chromebooks. But so far, those requests haven’t been addressed. That leaves most districts finding room in already tight budgets or turning to voters for support of technology tax levies.
“Financing is the biggest challenge,” said Lisa Snyder, superintendent of Lakeville schools, one of the first east metro districts to recognize the potential of putting Internet-connected devices in the hands of every student. “Our world is changing, our tools are changing, but there is nothing in our school funding structure to address that.”
In the past few years, districts such as St. Paul, Mahtomedi and White Bear Lake have won voter support for money to buy personalized technology. Yet in Stillwater, West St. Paul and Inver Grove Heights, similar requests have been defeated.
Winning over parents who are skeptical of how technology should be used in the classroom can be tricky.
Camille Feng, a parent with three children in St. Paul Public Schools, said she worries that her district’s plan to give every student an iPad means teachers will have more competition for students’ attention.
“I think a tool can be a great thing, but I have a great concern about teachers having to manage one more thing in school,” Feng said.
She also thinks the $9 million a year voters approved for more technology could be better spent.
“We can’t buy tissues for teachers’ classrooms, but we are buying iPads?” Feng said. “Teachers are the trained professionals. That’s the tool we need to be putting more money into.”
Skepticism from voters in districts such as Lakeville has school officials cautiously charting a course toward asking them for a technology levy in 2015. Meanwhile, the district is spending $1 million to continue to improve school Internet service and encouraging students to bring their own devices to class.
That’s a bit of a change from 2011, when the district cobbled together $2 million from existing funds to launch the iLearn initiative and purchase 2,000 iPads. The goal then was to eventually put a district-owned device in the hands of every student, but Snyder says a “bring-your-own-device” model now appears more feasible.
“Part of it is economic,” Snyder admits. “But there’s more to it. When it’s your device, you can customize it to your needs and wants. Hand a kid a new one and it doesn’t maximize that utilization.”
Lakeville’s challenges are just one example of the debates educators face as they integrate technology into the classroom.
Jay Haugen, Farmington schools superintendent, said it was clear voters in his district would be unlikely to support a technology levy to buy iPads for all 7,000 students. Instead, the district used anticipated cost savings on textbook, printing and other classroom expenses to help fund a three-year, $2.7 million lease deal with Apple.
“Everyone has a unique approach,” said Haugen, who is also on the board of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. “People are doing whatever it takes because it has gotten to the point where you’re left behind if you haven’t addressed this.”
South St. Paul schools also have gotten creative when it comes to funding technology.
In 2011, when school leaders wanted an interactive smart board in every classroom, but money was tight, they worked with the local chamber of commerce to create an “Adopt a School” programs to solicit donations.
Superintendent Dave Webb said the effort was quickly embraced by business leaders and community members.
“It spread like wildfire,” Webb said. “It’s a model that some school districts are using and, with articulated needs, it’s happening.”
Despite some creative approaches, educators acknowledge donations and creative financing are not likely to be sustainable solutions. Haugen hopes lawmakers will take up the issue when they return to the Capitol next year.
“If we are going to cement our place as the nation’s education leaders, there has to be some level of support,” Haugen said.
So far, the DFL-led Legislature has focused new spending on things like early education, and Republicans have maintained that raising money for devices such as iPads should be decided at the local level.
That leaves districts such as Lakeville and Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan crafting technology plans they hope parents will support. To test the waters, Rosemount schools will roll out a pilot program this fall that will give devices to students in 47 classrooms.
Steve Troen, director of teaching and learning, says the pilot program will help the district navigate toward its goal of eventually putting an iPad mini in the hands of every fourth- through 12th-grader. That is the recommendation from a task force established in 2013 to study how the district should weave technology into instruction.
The pilot group will help the district fine-tune how the devices will be used, what training teachers will need and what infrastructure improvements the district will have to do to provide wireless Internet access to every student.
It also will help board members decide what to do about a $1.25 million capital projects levy, now used for technology, which is set to expire. District leaders have not finalized the cost of providing every fourth- through 12th-grader with an iPad mini, but it would be more than the current levy provides.
“A lot of districts are wrestling with how to make this jump. It does require resources,” Troen said. “A district our size has to be thoughtful.”
Jim Smola, president of Dakota County United Educators, which represents teachers in the district of 27,000 students, said district leaders have done a good job researching what the 21st century classroom should look like.
“I think teachers appreciate having a plan and taking a broad look at this,” Smola said. “Technology can enhance a student’s education experience. It’s not just throwing iPads at kids and not having a plan.”
With so many competing needs, school leaders will have to win over parents such as Jackie Craig, who has two children at Oak Hills Elementary School in the Lakeville district.
She supports districts bringing Internet access and new technology to more classrooms, Craig said, but she believes most parents would choose more teachers over more technology.
Craig plans to run for Lakeville school board in the fall because she wants the district to be more transparent in its decision making.
“As a parent, removing any other obligations, I would support more teachers,” Craig said. “As a potential board member, I would listen to what the community wanted.”
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.