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Cuomo pushes for education bond act, skeptics remain

Katie Keier

The Nov. 4 ballot includes an amendment to borrow $2 billion to buy new technology for school children, like iPads and other tablets. Fiscal watchdogs are against it and the reaction of the education community has been lukewarm. But with one week left to go before Election Day, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who came up with idea, has finally started to push for it.

The bond act would permit the state to borrow money to buy iPads and other tablets, plus related technology, like better high-speed Internet access, for school children.  It would also pay for new classrooms for expanded pre-kindergarten programs, and to replace trailers that some overcrowded schools in New York City and elsewhere have been using as classrooms.

Just days before the election, Cuomo spoke at length about the $2 billion bond act for the first time since the proposal was included in the state budget.

The governor said it’s the single best thing New York can do to provide long overdue access to broadband Internet and tablet-based learning technology in schools.

“We jumpstart the technology revolution in education which is long, long overdue,” Cuomo said of the bond act.

Several months ago, Cuomo appointed a commission to decide how to best spend the money from the bond act. The commission issued its final report on Monday, where members, including Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, spoke of the critical need for greater access to high quality broadband Internet.

Cuomo, who has long been at odds with teachers, school boards, and others in the education community, said public education is also the largest public monopoly and is resistant to change.

He said New York spends the highest amount of money per pupil in the nation, yet gets results that are only in the middle of the pack.

“That is not okay on any level,” Cuomo said. “Our kids deserve better than just an average education system.”  

The language used to describe the amendment is designed to appeal to voters, which will be known as the Smart Schools Bond Act.

But fiscal watchdog groups say it might not be such a wise idea. E.J. McMahon of the Empire Center said it doesn’t make sense to use eight-year bonds to pay for computer tablets that will be outdated long before the bonds are repaid, with interest.

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

The Citizens Budget Commission said New York state is fast approaching its debt ceiling and should limit borrowing. The group points out that there has not been any assessment of what schools actually need.

The State Board of Regents asked for $1 million for new computers for school children in its most recent state aid request and is staying neutral over whether New Yorkers should approve the bond act.

Teachers and school administrators did not ask for the funds. They are supportive of the bond act but they have some reservations.

Timothy Kremer, the executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, said there is a crying need for better technology in the classrooms and the school boards hope the bond act could help with that.

But Kremer is also worried about the precedent of borrowing long term to pay for technology.

“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?’”

New York State United Teachers President Karen Magee said teachers welcome additional dollars for technology in the classroom but said the bond act funds could bring other costs, like schools paying for better broadband services so that students could actually use the new tablets.  She said teachers may need special training 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 are a lot of assumptions made when the concept is thrown out. So it’s all about the details.”

As the vote draws near, education groups seem to be loath to lobby against what could essentially be free money for schools. NYSUT is spending $200,000 on a promotional ad campaign to urge passage of the bond act.

But McMahon said voting against the bond act is not a vote against computer tablets for children or pre-kindergarten.  

“The bond act is not about that,” McMahon said. “It’s about how to pay for it.”

He said the state already has a multi-billion dollar school building aid fund to construct classrooms and the education budget includes $38 million for new technology for schools.

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.