Mandate to cost local schools $2 million
January 22, 2014
EAGLE — It could cost local schools $2 million to comply with an unfunded state and federal mandate.
The Colorado Department of Education is demanding that all standardized testing be done online by 2015. It will cost the school district around $2 million to buy enough computers and bandwidth to comply.
The Eagle County school district took its first step in that direction, spending $10,000 on 32 Google Chromebook computers and creating mobile kiosks to move them around. They're called Computers on Wheels.
"With 32 Chromebooks on each mobile kiosk, an entire class can have one-to-one access to technology in their normal classroom instead of a centralized lab," said Mike Gass, the school district's assistant superintendent and technology director.
This spring, the Colorado Department of Education is scheduled to begin delivering statewide standardized test results online in science and social studies. By 2015, all statewide standardized tests will be done online.
Students will need their own computer, says Heather Eberts, the school district's assistant superintendent of learning services. Gone will be the bubble sheets that students use to answer questions on current standardized tests, Eberts said.
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$10K per COW
Each Computers on Wheels and their 32 computers cost around $10,000, said Gass.
There's no help from Google, the state or U.S. departments of education. This is a school district expense, said Dan Dougherty, the school district's communications director.
The local school district paid $312 per Chromebook — more than they cost online — but that price includes the charging carts, wireless relays and security features for each device.
"We have to integrate a modicum of technology into the classroom and curriculum to keep up with expectations, yet have zero funding to do so," Dougherty said.
Ed-tech gold rush
It's part of a nationwide ed-tech gold rush. According to the Silicon Valley Business Journal, the ed-tech sector "is expected to more than double in size to $13.4 billion by 2017."
That explosive growth is fueled by Common Core's top-down digital learning and testing mandates.
Right now, Apple claims to own 94 percent of the U.S. education tablet market. Google's Chromebooks are a play by Apple's rival to get a piece of the growing education market.
Eagle County's school district is wisely easing into the program. On the West Coast last year, the cash-strapped Los Angeles Unified School District dumped $1 billion into a failed iPad program, while simultaneously cutting jobs and gutting extra curricular activities.
For now, the school district's Computers on Wheels kiosks are in Gypsum Creek, Berry Creek, Homestake Peak and Eagle Valley middle schools, Eagle Valley and Battle Mountain high schools, and Eagle Valley and Brush Creek elementary schools. Eventually, they'll be in all schools.
"COWs are a temporary solution that gets kids access to the technology they need in a way we can currently afford," Dougherty said. "Gypsum Creek Middle School is the school district's biggest pilot of the program, and the carts are used every day."
While online testing is pushing the issue, it's also the general direction of learning in the information age, Dougherty said.
Then there are scheduling issues that go with a centralized computer lab. With 300 kids in an elementary school and 30 computers in a lab, it would take 10 sessions to cycle all the kids through to take a test or research an assignment.
A standardized test can take up to three hours.
"You would need a week to get everyone through a test, that for security purposes has to be delivered simultaneously across the school on the same day," Dougherty said. "And, as we move to more eBooks and digital teaching techniques, the laptops serve as textbooks, notebooks, research gateways and homework gateways."
Textbooks are also moving online. Waning also are the days when a school district buys textbooks with a 15-year shelf life. Now, the school district is purchasing subscriptions to digital content, building wireless networks and complex server hubs, Gass said.
Textbooks cost around $150 each, according to school district data, and historically have a 10-year shelf life. That's $15 a year. New eBooks will require a subscription fee of $15 a year and will be updated annually.
Eventually, learning to write computer code will become part of the curriculum, Dougherty said. Last December, local students participated in the national Hour of Code, a program of code.org, a nonprofit sponsored in part by Microsoft and Google.
When the recession hit, the Eagle County school district slashed $9 million and 100 jobs in two years. The local school district slammed the brakes on its technology investment program and had not bought any new computers until this year, according to the district's budget. Part of a small funding increase in 2014 was pushed into technology rotation, and the school district began cycling out eight-year old desktop and laptop computers. But LCD TV monitors purchased five years ago are starting to fail. They connect to laptops.
Trying to keep up with technology is an ongoing economic hurdle for school districts, Gass said. In the private sector, businesses can deduct the falling value of their equipment — called depreciation — from their income taxes. Schools cannot and need to reinvest in technology about every three years, Gass said.
Calls to the Colorado Department of Education were not returned Wednesday.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vail daily.com.