School technology bill clears first hurdle

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 26 2014 1:00 p.m. MST

North Davis Junior High School students Dazia Barba and Faith Shupe use a tablet to research artists during an arts foundation class in Clearfield on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The broad strokes of a plan to fill Utah's schools with digital learning devices have been public for weeks, but on Wednesday lawmakers got their first chance to hold debate and take action on the proposal.

HB131, or the Public Education Modernization Act, would upgrade the technology and network infrastructure in Utah's public schools and begin moving the state toward a so-called "one-to-one" device ratio where each of Utah's more than 600,000 students would have access to a digital learning device.

"Technology is upon us, representatives," HB131 sponsor Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, said while urging committee support of the bill Wednesday. "We have to move forward. We have to be more competitive."

Gibson said that when properly implemented, technology initiatives have been shown to increase test scores and graduation rates while decreasing the number of dropouts and disciplinary actions.

But a statewide use of learning technology, including the costs of the devices themselves as well as regular maintenance, upgrades and teacher training, comes at a considerable cost. The bill currently calls for $200 million in one-time and ongoing funding, but lawmakers are skeptical the budget allows for that level of expense this year.

Gibson said he prefers to focus on the vision in the bill, rather than its price tag. If lawmakers decide that school technology is worth pursuing, he said, then leaders in the House and Senate will determine what level of funding is available.

The House Education Committee ultimately voted 13-1 to move the bill to the full House, but several lawmakers expressed that they remain unconvinced without knowing the full burden the bill would place on taxpayers.

"The idea that (funding) is going to come if we decide we like the vision isn’t enough for me because I need to know where it’s coming from," Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, said.

Arent also took issue with the categorization that funding for the Modernization Act would represent new money for schools. While the bill, in its current form, calls for $150 million from the state's General Fund, it would require other state programs to be downsized at the expense of purchasing devices for students.

"I don’t see it as new money," Arent said. "It’s shuffling money that we’ve already got."

The bill has received a lukewarm reception from the education community, with many groups — such as the State Office of Education and the Utah Education Association — expressing support for the concept of increasing technology in schools but stopping short of formal support for HB131.

Prior to the announcement of the Education Modernization Act, the State School Board had been working on its own one-to-one device initiative with the idea of requesting $50 million in ongoing funding to allow for the replacement of devices on a three-year cycle.

On Wednesday, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Martell Menlove reiterated that the State School Board is "very much supportive of the concept" of one-to-one devices.

After HB131 was made public, the UEA conducted a nonscientific survey of its members and received more than 1,700 responses, Sarah Jones, UEA's director of educational excellence, said.

The survey showed that roughly 68 percent of teachers support increasing the amount of learning devices in schools, but not at the expense of existing needs — such as funding for growth in enrollment, Social Security and retirement costs, an increase in per-student spending and restoration of teacher training days.

"Once those basic funding priorities are met, then look at how you can fund a new technology project," Jones said.

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