SC school leaders want flexibility in tech purchases

jself@thestate.comMarch 2, 2013 

— When Diane Gilbert, a teacher at Kelly Mill Middle School, taught her students about the business aspects of running a theme park, she beamed a Disney representative into the classroom for an interview.

When she teaches Shakespeare, she has a list of go-to websites and apps that her students, working on tablets and computers, use to learn.

“Whatever it is you’re going to be teaching them, they have that springboard of excitement because they get to use the devices,” Gilbert said of the impact of bringing technology into the classroom.

The Richland 2 school district where Gilbert teaches is among several in the state pushing to put an electronic device in every student’s hands. And as more school districts move beyond printed textbooks, they are looking for more flexibility in choosing and paying for technology.

School systems are not allowed to negotiate with publishers to buy textbooks. Instead, the selection and purchase of textbooks is handled through the S.C. Department of Education.

However, a state Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, would allow districts to go outside the state’s list to buy digital textbooks.

But some district superintendents say the proposal is only a small step toward larger changes that are needed in the way the state pays for instructional materials, including giving districts more control over what they buy.

The bill, they say, would leave it to the districts to pay for e-textbooks out of pocket, when they want to be able to use their share of money available through the state.

State schools superintendent Mick Zais, a Republican, supports removing the state Education Department and Board of Education from the process of choosing and doling out textbooks, said spokesman Jay Ragley.

But Zais does not support the state paying for digital devices for school districts – a move that would create “a never-ending want by districts to have the latest and greatest device,” Ragley said. “A line item for devices (in the budget) would be bad public policy.”

State has purse strings

Some school district leaders disagree.

Superintendent Lynn Moody of the Rock Hill school district is pushing for changes in state law that would allow districts to use textbook money to buy digital textbooks and devices.

Moody acknowledges that convincing lawmakers to pay for technology outright likely is unrealistic. But allowing districts to decide how to spend their textbook money would be a start.

Richland 2 spokesman Ken Blackstone said the move to digital devices is not just about swapping printed texts for digital e-texts. It also is about allowing teachers to take advantage of the ways of learning that technology offers.

“When people want to learn things” – how to replace a sink, how to play guitar – “where do they go? ... YouTube,” he said.

“Certainly having local control of every district’s portion of the (state) money would go a long way in helping out teachers to have that flexibility,” Blackstone said.

But Education Department spokesman Ragley said the state does not divide textbook money into pots for every school district.

The General Assembly appropriates money to Education Department each year for textbooks. School districts request textbooks from a list approved by the state Board of Education. Then, the Education Department buys textbooks and digital licenses for electronic instructional materials and loans them out to districts while retaining ownership.

Hayes’ bill would provide districts a way around that system by allowing them to buy digital textbooks not on the approved list but provides no additional money to pay for them.

Going digital

Hayes said the current method for choosing textbooks has served the state well for years but may be becoming “outmoded.”

Lawmakers may need to consider sending money directly to districts for textbooks, he said. That likely won’t happen until next year.

But the plan faces opposition.

One issue is that different school districts are moving into the digital age at different speeds.

Hayes cited “wariness” from the Education Department and the “poorer school districts because they don’t have the technology.”

“They don’t want to do this, and they’re afraid there’s going to be less money for them if some of the money is siphoned off for the other districts,” Hayes said.

But as more and more districts expand their use of technology in the classroom, lawmakers will have to rethink the way they pay for instructional materials, including electronic devices, Hayes said.

“More and more, there’s going to be a huge demand for districts to have it,” Hayes said. But, he added, “There are a lot of districts that aren’t anywhere close to being able to afford that.”

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