Nearly $60 million worth of computer technology, support and tools this year went into Utah classrooms — but not in the way some lawmakers had hoped.

So now Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, wants another $40 million to $50 million allocated — and designated specifically for computer-assisted instructional software that he says could work wonders in a classroom.

But some educators say that while they support the idea of putting more technology in the classrooms, they are concerned about lawmakers overstepping their bounds.

"We appreciate the attention to technology ... but it is of concern anytime that something like that is legislated or micromanaged from the state level," said Kim Campbell, president of the Utah Education Association. "We are in support of the concept, but we do have concerns about being managed from the state level and feel like those decisions are best made at the local level."

But Stephenson said his proposal is not about controlling funding. It's about exposing teachers to cutting-edge tools that many don't know exist.

"(Teachers) are not knowledgable of what's available — this brings visibility to the incredible tools that make a teacher's job easier and more effective," Stephenson said. "They can apply for it, and they will get to choose whether they want to engage this new technology."

Last year, lawmakers on the public education appropriation subcommittee attended an all-day meeting with demonstrations in computer-assisted technology software. Program capabilities included one-on-one interactive reading, English language instruction, math tutoring and more.

When they allocated $60 million for technology, "I naturally assumed much or most of this money would have gone to computer-assisted instructional software to assist teachers in teaching core better," Stephenson said. "I thought they would be chomping at the bit for that kind of software — they weren't."

Only $3.6 million actually went to instructional software, while the majority of the funding went to computers, laptops and other hardware — something education leaders say was necessary.

"That kind of instructional software requires a lot of hardware that is accessible to students," said Larry Shumway, state associate superintendent. "The days where a computer lab with 30 computers in a school will suffice to meet the needs of a whole elementary school are long gone, so maintaining computers that are adequate for the kinds of interactive work we want children to be doing requires continuing investment in hardware."

So, to entice teachers to implement computer-assisted instructional software in the classrooms, Stephenson wants to try a different approach.

Instead of simply allocating funding for computer technology, he wants to buy software licenses and distribute them to schools and districts in the form of grants. He said that in past education legislation, when funding is competitively available in the form of grants, educators go after them "like sharks fighting over a fish."

"(I've) learned that educators' drug of choice is grants — they smell grants, and they will move heaven and earth to qualify," Stephenson said.

He said that along with making the process competitive, the grant process will also ensure that teachers will use the software effectively.

"If we were to buy licenses and just pass them out they would mostly sit on a shelf, but when you give them their drug of choice they will focus in the optimum way to make sure it works," Stephenson said.

Rick Gaisford, technology specialist for the State Office of Education, said that last year Utah's public schools ranked last in the nation when it comes to access to technology in the classroom.

He said last year's $60 million technology infusion is "making a tremendous difference in the schools" and said that although an ongoing commitment is needed to catch up, the appropriation was a step in the right direction.

And both educators and lawmakers agree technology in the classroom needs to be beefed up.

"Right now kids are falling between the cracks because of the absence of this technology in Utah schools," Stephenson said.


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