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Education

Watchdog group warns against proposed education bond act

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Brad Flickinger
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New York's November ballot includes a proposal for the state to borrow $2 billion to spend on technology, like computer tablets, for school children. But a fiscal watchdog group says it’s not a good way to finance the purchase of iPads.

The bond act would give New York state permission to borrow money primarily to invest in new technology for students in elementary and secondary schools. It would also include money for building more classrooms for expanded pre-kindergarten.

E.J. McMahon, with the Empire Center, a fiscally conservative watchdog group, says borrowing money that will be paid back with interest over an eight-year period is not the best way to finance technology that will quickly become obsolete. He says it’s like taking out a home equity loan to buy the entire family new computers.

“They’re assuming that a box full of iPads some school buys next year are still going to be useful and not obsolete in 2022,” McMahon said. “Nobody believes that.”

He says even the state's Board of Regents, which nearly always recommends at least $ 1 billion more per year be spent on schools, only asked for $1 million in additional money for technology for schools. The state education department already has a $38 million budget for new technology.

And McMahon says the state has a $2.7 billion building aid fund.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed the bond act, and has already set up a task force on how to spend the money, headed by Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

Cuomo was asked recently whether he actively backed the bond act. He had little to say about it.

“I’ve spoken publicly on the bond issue,” Cuomo told reporters. “I support it.”

The governor has not held any campaign events to promote the bond act. McMahon says the governor’s creation of a commission on how to distribute the funds before the bond act has even been presented to voters is a little premature.

“His strategy is calculated presumptuousness,” McMahon said. “He basically acts as if it’s already passed.”  

No education group is actively backing the proposal. And many, including the teachers union and the state school boards, have expressed reservations.

McMahon says a vote against the ballot proposal does not mean a vote against giving kids access to pre-K and computer tablets. He says a no vote is simply a protest against the wrong way to pay for it.

“It’s not how you feel about classroom technology and pre-K,” McMahon said. “The bond act is not about that. It’s about how to pay for it, and the good news is we are already paying for it through annual budget appropriations.”

He says the $100 million paid on interest for the bonds each year could be better used going directly to schools to finance any needed new technology.