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Finding Funds for Student Laptops

Choose the correct strategy for sustaining your educational vision financially

Funding is the biggest barrier to the one to one laptop initiative, or so the myth goes. This perception distracts many schools and districts from focusing on important areas such as innovative pedagogy and professional development, which are critical factors in the success of any one to one program. Understanding the funding options underlying successful one to one efforts allows us to focus on educational issues.

The funding discussion can be broken into two parts: one, predominately philosophical, is oriented around who should provide the funds; the other is more pragmatic, oriented around how those funds are managed equitably.

There are two extremes in the continuum of funding models. Either parents pay for their child's laptop, or the district or state does. While many early initiatives, particularly those in private schools, were developed totally around parent funding, there have also been some significant state and district initiatives that have required little or no contribution from families.

The appropriate funding model for your school or district is unique to your local community needs and culture. However, it is critical that your adopted model be both sustainable and, above

Little or nothing is gained from a one-off grant or bond issue unless it is used for a proof of concept, which can then be used to source additional funds. Additionally, all students must have laptop access.

The best funding solution for your one to one laptop initiative will derive from one or more of the following approaches:

State-Funded Models

The state of Maine led the way, but several states have since followed. Maine's model was well thought out and provided funding not only for the technology but also infrastructure and professional development. Recurrence will always be the biggest challenge with this model, as such innovations are vulnerable to political changes and new priorities.

Very few administrators
that have launched a one
to one initiative ever
believed they could afford it.

While a state-funded model overcomes equity issues, the other challenge can be what else is associated with any tied funds, that is, the extent to which there is any local control of the manner in which the funds are distributed and managed.

District-Funded Models

The district-funded model may include some state or federal funds. The model pioneered by the Henrico County, Va., schools enjoys the benefit of sustainability while preserving local control. Henrico expanded its existing technology by increasing spending from 2-3 percent of the budget to approximately 5 percent. The additional funds resulted from savings in other areas, such as textbooks and specialized technology used by few students. The reordering of budgetary priorities ensured that the provision of student laptops became an annual expenditure, just as traditional fixed costs are.

Although many districts succeed in raising one to one funds through bond issues, changing priorities may make the program vulnerable at the end of the bond period. This strategy builds in a high level of accountability since renewing the funding requires asking the community for an additional bond.

Still, it is difficult to repeatedly ask the community for large bonds, and that can make laptops seem like a one-time investment rather than an educational staple.

Parent-Funded Models

This model leverages the fact that a child with a laptop will use it far more outside of school than within. Studies suggest that even allowing for schoolwork done at home, children with 24/7 access will use their laptops for at least half the time for non-school-related activities. Schools don't have to pay for that time. This intersects with a desire from parents to provide their children with a computer at home. Family contributions also enhance a sense of responsible ownership. Families can simply cover insurance costs or pay for the entire laptop.

Contributions have ranged from $30 a year to $60 a month.

Cofunded or Blended-Funded Models

One to one laptop funding strategies may be selected from the previous three models or be combined in a hybrid model and can include one or more of the following:

1. Information technology department funds, which for most schools is 2-3 percent of a school's annual budget. When prudently managed, this money can provide a substantial foundation for sustainable funds.

2. Parent contributions, which can vary according to access, ability to pay, and extent of supplementary funding.

Districts successful with one to one initiatives budget at least an additional 25-33 percent of the total costs for priorities such as professional development and support.

3. One-off grants or bonds from district, state, federal, corporate or philanthropic sources. These are most appropriately used to cover one-off start-up costs, such as infrastructure and professional development, or can create an equity fund or foundation supplementing an individual parent's capacity to make a full contribution.

With the cost of computers decreasing over recent years, even a slight increase in the information technology budget built upon minor savings in textbooks and other consumables, and a family contribution of even 80 cents per day adequately fund a one to one program. Three- or four-year laptop leases reduce the funding burden and greatly assist cash flow. Supplemental funds from a foundation or local group can ensure equity and sustainability.

The wealth of your local school or community has little to do with innovation and sustainability. Success is almost totally dependent on the extent to which your vision of improving student learning justifies your investment.

Bruce Dixon is president of the Anytime, Anywhere Learning Foundation and a contributing editor to The Pulse: Education's Place for Debate (