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.
Parents have also expressed concern that the bill would lead to children spending their formative years in front of a computer screen rather than interacting with their peers or would put a device between a pupil and teacher.
Alisa Ellis, a mother and education advocate, said she does not believe that the use of technology is best for the learning styles of every student. She worries about school districts making the decision to place learning devices in the hands of students without the input or approval of parents.
"As the program moves forward and a district is taking grant money, it limits the voice of the parent because of the grant parameters," Ellis said.
Gibson said technology is simply a reality in the lives of most children, who are currently asked to leave their devices behind and "drive an old car" in the classroom. He also emphasized that his bill is not intended to supplant the role of an educator but instead will empower new methods of interaction and information delivery.
"A computer cannot put an arm around a child and let (him or her) know that things are going to be fine, that they’re going to learn this concept, that they’re going to succeed," Gibson said.
Despite the uncertainty on the bill's fiscal impact, members of the House Education Committee expressed that the bill was worthy of floor debate in the House and further consideration.
"We are no longer a U.S. society, we are a global society," Rep. Rich Cunningham, R-South Jordan, said. "I do not want to have our children not have the access and be left behind with what’s happening in other countries."
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