In Utah, discussions about public education funding usually focus on the statistic perennially ranking the state at or near the bottom of the nation for per pupil spending. But now, talk of a huge investment is brewing as Rep. Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, has unveiled a plan to direct $200 million toward placing a digital device in the hands of every Utah schoolchild.
If approved, the sum—which would need to be committed years into the future to maintain the tens of thousands of electronic devices and upgrade wireless infrastructures at schools—would be the largest single-year public-education expenditure in the state’s history, according to the Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analysis.
Lockhart says the initiative, known as the Public Education Modernization Act, would go a long way toward improving the state’s cash-strapped education system.
But her proposal, which is being sponsored by Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, has been greeted with consternation from some legislators, who question how and where $200 million will appear. And, although the Utah Education Association has not taken a stand on the bill, a spokesman says the organization would much rather see the millions that were cut during the great recession restored before a multi-year technology spending spree begins.
The timing of the initiative, in Lockhart’s final push of a 16-year legislative career, has also drawn fire. As speaker of the house, Lockhart is among the most powerful politicians in the state, and she is widely believed to be hatching a campaign to challenge her GOP colleague and Utah County neighbor Gov. Gary Herbert for the governor’s seat in 2016.
Lockhart has an answer for all of these critiques. Her initiative, she says, is “really bold.” The money, she says, will flow when it needs to flow. And as for Herbert, she says, this has nothing to do with him.
“As I leave the legislature, this is an area that I’d like to see move forward,” she told City Weekly. “But I truly believe, as I’ve looked at education over the last couple of years, this is the direction we need to go.”
The bill hasn’t yet gone before a legislative committee, though as of press time, it was scheduled to go before the House Education Committee on Feb. 26.
As a result, many of the nuts & bolts haven’t come together. As written, the bill would form an advisory committee, which would select a technology expert to assist the state as it sorts through proposals from technology firms to provide devices and software. Then, individual school districts would apply for grants to implement the programs.
Other initiatives to plop shiny digital devices in the hands of every student have had mixed results across the country. In Indiana, students skirted around the educational security fences on their school-bought iPads, doing social-media work instead of real homework. And in Los Angeles, an ambitious $1 billion iPad rollout to students has been fraught with complications, including unexpected software costs that could reach into the hundreds of millions.
Those kinds of follies, Lockhart says, have been the result of focusing too much too early on getting the digital device in the hands of students. A far more important piece of the puzzle, she says, is training teachers to fold the devices into the curriculum so they can be an asset rather than a distraction.
“When you have that, you will have success and children will learn deeper and they will learn faster,” Lockhart says. “The goal here is to do it in the right way.”
Some schools in Utah, using grant funding, have already implemented one-to-one technology (one device for every child) initiatives.
Northwest Middle School in Salt Lake City has been at a nearly one-to-one ratio for the past four years. Upping the school’s use of technology occurred in step with a host of other efforts to improve the once-struggling school, including grants to train teachers with new instructional strategies and implementing incentive-based pay.
The school, once deemed “pervasively low-performing,” Northwest Principal Brian Conley says, is now in the top 30 percent in the state for achieving student proficiency standards.
“We’ve had some great increases and it wasn’t because parents all the sudden started sending us their smart students; it’s because we as educators became more effective at what we do,” Conley says. “And a part of that was technology.”
Kirsten Butcher, director of the Center for Advancement of Technology in Education at the University of Utah, says Lockhart’s initiative could be successful if it’s buoyed by “significant professional development.”
The devices could “allow teachers to do something more and deeper in the classroom,” Butcher says, adding that she feels investing heavily in technology is “wise,” but only if extensive resources are available to train teachers. “They’re not useful when they’re sort of a replacement for teachers,” she says.
Herbert says he doesn’t necessarily think a one-to-one technology program is a bad idea; he just doesn’t know where the money will come from. A draft report from an education taskforce he helped form pegged the initial start-up costs at $750 million and ongoing costs as at least $290 million. These costs would cover a one-to-one program just for grades five through 12.
“I don’t think the math works out,” he says. “It’s going to have to be a much more limited approach when it comes to technology than the 200 or 300 million dollars that’s proposed.”
Herbert also shrugged off any suggestion that Lockhart’s efforts were a political affront to his own education budget, which he says not only addresses technology, but also increases teacher pay and fully funds Utah’s growing crop of students.
“I think [Lockhart’s] trying to find an issue,” he says. “Other people say it’s her legacy, something she wants to do. So who knows? I don’t feel like it’s an affront. I take her word that she believes that this is something we ought to do.”
Mike Kelly, a spokesman for the UEA, says his organization would prefer to see the legislature restore education funding that was lost in recent years. He says public education funding is currently 9.6 percent lower than in 2008, and that the hundreds of millions of dollars that Lockhart hopes to put toward technology could be better spent reducing Utah’s ballooning class sizes and providing professional development for teachers.
“That’s where the first investments need to be made right now,” he says. “That’s where the critical needs are in the schools.”
As the bill inches through the process, Herbert says, its fate will hinge on money and, to date, he hasn’t heard where it will materialize. “As I’ve asked her and others have asked her, ‘Great, where’s the money coming from?’ ”
But Lockhart says finding the money now isn’t as important as directing policy. The money, she believes, will take care of itself.
“What’s most important at this point is the policy,” she says. “If we can embrace the policy, which I believe is the right one, then we can decide about the money.”
Where The Money Could Flow
If passed, the bill could also be a boon to technology firms, many of which operate right here in Utah.
recent years, lawmakers have been harping on the importance of churning
out students who are qualified to take jobs in fields that require
math, science, engineering and technology. These efforts came to a head
in 2013 when the legislature passed House Bill 139, which allocated $10
million for the creation of the STEM Action Center.
technology, engineering and math) programs, are close to Lockhart and
her husband, Stan Lockhart, who is the private-sector chair for the STEM
initiative. Stan Lockhart also works as a government-affairs manager
for Lehi-based IM Flash Technologies, a branch of Intel and Micron that,
among other things, develops storage chips for digital devices.
Young, executive director of the Utah Technology Council—which through a
political-action committee contributed $3,500 to Lockhart’s political
campaign cache between 2010 and 2011—says her group is very supportive
of the bill.
“I think it’s a fabulous idea,” Young says, noting that
her group has 428 members, some of whom, including Lockhart campaign
contributor and Provo educational-software developer Imagine Learning,
might end up in the mix to provide software to schools. “They’re asking
our companies to participate and be able to help with that. I think it’s
the way of the future when we have so many children per classroom and
our dollars are limited. I think we need to maximize those and I think
iPads and personal computers are a way to do that.”