No one stepping up to pay for iPads for Tennessee schools

No one stepping up to pay for iPads for Tennessee schools

December 18th, 2012 by Kevin Hardy in Local Regional News

Tracey Carisch explains how wealth disparity across the district affects students' exposure to new technologies, during a meeting with Times Free Press reporters and editors Monday afternoon.

Photo by Alyson Wright /Times Free Press.

In this file photograph, James Weekely, a student at Hamilton County's new STEM school for science, technology, engineering and math, works on an algebra I problem on an iPad. Teachers and students at the school are transitioning to a totally digital curriculum and use iPads for almost all instruction and assignments.

In this file photograph, James Weekely, a student...

Photo by Allison Love /Times Free Press.

POLL: Should every student have an iPad?

It could costs tens of millions of dollars for Tennessee school districts to upgrade outdated technology infrastructure in time for new online assessments in the 2014-15 school year.

But so far, no one is quite sure who will pay for the mass purchase of thousands of new desktops, laptops or tablets.

Tennessee committed to moving to new, more universal state exams through its Race to the Top application and its waiver from No Child Left Behind. The state then chose to join the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, or PARCC, a consortium of 23 states working together to create common assessments in reading and math.

Tennessee has committed to taking PARCC's new online tests starting in the 2014-15 school year. But to get there, many districts will have to purchase new computers or tablets to have the capacity to test all students online.

And it's likely that already strapped school district budgets will make it hard for locals to pick up the tab. That's the case in Hamilton County, where Superintendent Rick Smith has called on the General Assembly to step up and help fund the massive technology purchase. The goal here is for every public school student eventually to have access to an iPad.

But Tennessee Department of Education officials said they have no plans yet to ask for district funding, and Gov. Bill Haslam's office says it is premature to announce what's in next year's budget. Tennessee House and Senate members also haven't made any commitments.

Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson, told parents at a PTA meeting this month that the 2015 deadline may not be a strict one. In an interview last week, he said rising costs associated with TennCare and the Affordable Care Act will take away resources that could be used for schools and technology purchases.

But with the General Assembly not convening until January, he said it's too early to get a clear picture of the state's budget.

"You're asking me a budget question before we have really taken up the finances of the state," Watson said.

Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, agreed that rising medical costs will restrict Tennessee's budget next year. But that doesn't give the state an excuse to neglect the school technology issue.

"If the state is going to require that testing, then the state needs to make sure the schools are able to do the testing," he said. "I think the state has the responsibility to do everything it can."

Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, said he's supportive of adding technology to schools, so long as the state and local governments can find a way to pay for it.

"One of the things I hate worse than anything else is federal unfunded mandates to state government," Floyd said. "Therefore, it's no more fair for the feds to send us unfunded mandates than it is for the state to send locals an unfunded mandate."