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Education Bond Act draws support, criticism from educators

Sean MacEntee

New York voters will decide in November whether the state should borrow $2 billion for new technology, including iPads, in school classrooms. Teachers and school administrators who could benefit from the funds say they are supportive, but want to see more details.

The Bond Act, as it reads on the November ballot, would provide access to classroom technology and high-speed Internet connections, as well as offer funds to build more pre-kindergarten classrooms and replace the trailers that some overcrowded schools in New York City have been using to teach students.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the plan in his State of the State message earlier this year, saying there’s need to bring New York’s schools into the 21st century.

“There are some schools where the most sophisticated piece of electronic equipment is the metal detector that you walk through on the way to the classroom,” Cuomo said. “And that is just wrong.”

The Bond Act was approved by the legislature as part of the state budget. Teachers and school boards are expressing optimism, but also some reservations.

The executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, Tim Kremer, says his group supports the goal to bring more high tech to the schools. But he's concerned about the precedent of borrowing long-term to pay for technology like iPads, that could be obsolete well before the bonds are paid off.

“It is a concern,” said Kremer. “My initial reaction was 'is borrowing for that kind of technology that is quickly obsolete a very good idea?’”

Fiscal watchdog groups have expressed similar concerns.

But Kremer says the portion of the Bond Act that would go to build new classrooms for pre-K programs and get kids out of trailers would be a good use of the money, because it would be a long-term investment with long-term benefits.  

The president of the state’s largest teachers union says teachers welcome additional dollars for technology in the classroom. But Karen Magee of New York State United Teachers, says the devil is in the details.

She says there are other related issues that will also cost money, like making sure the school actually has broadband Internet access and that teachers are properly trained to maximize the use of the new technology.

“Giving kids tablets with no direct instruction and no upgrading along the way, and no access to the Internet, it doesn’t serve any purpose,” Magee said. “There’s a lot of assumptions made when the concept is thrown out. So it’s all about the details.”

She also says that while $2 billion may seem like a substantial amount of money, it won’t pay for an iPad for every school child in the state.  

Cuomo appointed a commission to decide how best to spend the money, should voters approve it. It’s headed by Google CEO Eric Schmidt. The commission has held one public meeting so far, where speakers discussed the issues of lack of Internet access and the need for training.  

Others say the Education Bond Act does nothing to fix the larger problem in the state’s schools. The Alliance for Quality Education, a group that advocates for increased funding for schools, says Cuomo and the legislature need to address a multi-billion dollar gap they say exists in the current amount of school funding in New York. The AQE’s Billy Easton says a 2005 order from the state’s highest court that said several billion more dollars need to be spent to ensure that education is truly equitable, has never been fulfilled.

“The bond initiative won’t address these issues at all,” Easton said. “You can’t pay for teachers or guidance counselors out of the bond initiative.”

Cuomo’s commission on the Bond Act plans to meet again in September. There are no details yet of any campaigns to promote the ballot item.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.