With a transition to computer-based testing on the horizon, the state is preparing to hand out millions of dollars so schools with low-income students can buy the technology they’ll need to make the switch.
State Education Commissioner John King announced today that $87 million in unclaimed vouchers from a 2006 class-action settlement with Microsoft Corporation would fund technology spending for 1,878 low-income schools, including more than 1,000 in New York City. The funding will give the schools $67 per student to spend as they wish on approved kinds of technology.
The windfall comes as state education officials are coming to terms with the fact that districts are not prepared to make the change from paper-based tests to online tests. New York is part of a consortium of states that are planning to adopt tests aligned to the new Common Core learning standards that would be administered entirely online by 2015. But many schools in the state do not currently have enough computers, or bandwidth, to be able to administer computer-based tests to all of their students.
“What I hear is alarm over the prospect of having to make that shift,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.
Many superintendents are already grappling with growing pension payments and new costs associated with implementing teacher evaluation plans, he said. Districts would have foot most of the bill associated with technology upgrades, too.
“In a perfect world this is absolutely the direction we should be moving,” Lowry added, speaking to computer-based testing. “Getting from here to there, giving the current financial prospects, is intimidating.”
As a first step, the State Education Department has asked districts to do an inventory of their computer equipment and network infrastructure — how many servers and wireless access points keep their schools connected. While officials have not disclosed any results, State Sen. John Flanagan said last month at a legislative hearing that many district officials told him they weren’t even able to keep pace with their current technology needs.
“This is an area where SED isn’t listening as well as it should,” said Flanagan, who said King should be asking the legislature for more money to fund technology.
For a second straight year, King is asking for $500,000 to fund a computer-based testing pilot in a small number of schools. The legislature denied last year’s request.
King said he hoped that one solution to the fiscal crunch would be money from the Microsoft settlement, also called the Cy Pres Fund. In addition to supporting the shift to computer-based testing, King said the funding would help narrow a growing technology gap between rich and poor students at a time when more careers rely on advanced computer skills.
“Far too often, students in low-income school districts miss out on the use of the latest technology in the classroom,” King said in a statement. “Our goal is to graduate every student with the skills and knowledge they need to be successful in college and careers. Technology is an important tool to help students reach that goal.”
“These funds will help level the playing field for thousands of students,” he added.
The voucher program allows schools to spend its money in two ways. Half can be spent on hardware, such as on desktop computers, laptops, tablets, scanners, and fax machines. Hardware can also include routers and servers to boost school bandwidth. The other half can be spent on software for the computers.
The money must be spent by Nov. 1, 2014. Eligible schools can begin applying for the vouchers on Monday.
The funding is money that’s left over from a class action lawsuit with Microsoft brought by consumers from several states that claimed the corporation broke antitrust laws and overcharged for its products. In New York, much of the $225 million settlement went unclaimed by New Yorkers and, as part of the agreement, half of the unclaimed funds went back to Microsoft. The other half will be spent on school technology.
New York is one of the last states to receive its Microsoft payout for schools. Wisconsin, for instance, received about $75 million for education funding back in 2009.