Tablets or Teachers? L.A. Tech Initiative Sparks Heated Board Debate

Last month, when a panel overseeing bond spending for Los Angeles schools narrowly rejected initial steps to provide all 650,000 students with tablet computers, the biggest concern for the program was whether bond funding could pay for technology. But a school board meeting this week revealed there may be deeper tensions about technology in the system, specifically whether for tablets could come at the expense of teachers.

As the Los Angeles Daily Breeze News reports, two school board members got into a heated exchange over education technology. A proposal by Superintendent John Deasy would give every Los Angeles student a tablet or similar electronic device, at an estimated cost of $450 million, plus additional infrastructure costs. In November, the district’s Bond Oversight Committee voted 7 to 3 in favor of the plan—or at least a $17.4 million preliminary bond to provide students in 14 schools with tablets— but fell one vote short of the amount required to pass it.

Bonds are typically used for school construction but can pay for technology. In this case, there are doubts whether students would be allowed to take such technology home and whether bonds can pay for technology with a lifespan of only a few years.

The school board doesn’t have to follow the committee’s recommendation, but Deasy said he would not lobby the board to override the ruling. Even so, on Tuesday a working group presented a separate digital education plan to the board, in response to a resolution from board member Tamar Galatzan. That lead to the heated debate. According to the Daily Breeze News, board member Richard Vladovic interrupted the presentation to point out the enormous costs of the tablets and the greater need to restore salary cuts and furlough days for teachers. Things escalated quickly.

“Are you saying we should raise salaries before we buy computers?” board President Monica Garcia asked, prompting Vladovic to shout, “I think salaries should be a priority!”
“We’ve taken so much away from employees,” Vladovic said. “We need to restore what they’re owed.”

To be clear, teacher salaries do not come from the same funding source as technology so it’s somewhat of a false choice. After Vladovic’s interruption, Garcia noted that if salaries were restored, teachers would actually receive a raise, suggesting the matter is unrelated to technology, the Daily Breeze reported.

“I don’t want to put one [issue] against the other,” Vladovic said in response, according to the Daily Breeze News. “I want to see the total package. I would say, `Let’s bring everything at once so we, as a board, can decide priorities.”

Vladovic’s priorities align with officials skeptical of big technology expenditures in school districts, especially those with budgetary constraints. Earlier this year, I wrote about the pressure from policymakers for school districts to switch to digital content and technology, and the different ways they are (or aren’t) paying for it. Technology is seen as a way to boost student engagement in school but there is scant evidence that devices improve academic performance. (And it’s worth noting there is mixed evidence that increasing teacher salary boosts academic performance.)

If Los Angeles were to purchase a tablet for every student, it would be far and away the largest deployment in the country. The largest one-to-one deployment is in McAllen, Texas, which purchased 25,700 iPads for every student and teacher, as part of a $20 million digital learning initiative. San Diego purchased 26,000 iPads in its 135,000-student district; it also purchased more than 77,000 laptops for students.

In opposing the technology initiative, the Los Angeles Times editorial board cites the digital strategy of nearby Riverside Unified School District, which I profiled in the aforementioned story. The 44,000-student Riverside employs a mix of devices, with 12,500 purchased for students and others brought from home. The district found that Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablet and Apple’s iPod Touch works better for elementary students, while Lenovo’s A1 tablet is more appropriate for middle school.

“There’s a sense in education that is has to be a monolithic, one-size-fits-all approach,” Jay McPhail, the director of instructional technology at Riverside, told me. (For more on Riverside and McAllen’s digital stratgies, watch this webinar, Managing the Print-to-Digital Transition.)

The working group’s digital education presentation involved more than just devices, touting blended learning programs and the need to extend learning beyond the school day. With assessments based on the Common Core State Standards expected to be in place by the 2014-15 school year, devices could also be used to administer the tests, which will all be digital.

In January, the board will receive a presentation on possible funding options for the digital education plan. That could still include a recommendation to purchase tablets, and could still include construction bonds as a possible source, Hilary MacGregor, a spokeswoman for Galatzan told me.

The board has final vote on whether to proceed with the bond.

“I don’t know if that’s dead yet,” she said.

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