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How school districts are funding 1-to-1

Options include bond issues, grants and reshuffling budgets
Baldwin County School District in Alabama spends $9 million per year on its Digital Renaissance program, which funds MacBook Air laptops for middle and high school students, and iPads for K2 students.
Baldwin County School District in Alabama spends $9 million per year on its Digital Renaissance program, which funds MacBook Air laptops for middle and high school students, and iPads for K2 students.

Before 4,450 MacBook Airs were distributed to students, before teachers were equipped and trained on their own devices, before test scores increased and the dropout rate decreased, the Mooresville Graded School District’s digital conversion started with a hard look at finances—one result of which was the elimination of more than 35 teaching positions.

Officials in the North Carolina school district, which ranked almost last in the state in per-student spending, knew rolling laptops out to all students in grades three through 12 would be an expensive undertaking. They knew the initial outlay would be followed by maintenance, professional development, and replacement costs. And they knew that finding the right funding formula would require changing the status quo. It would also require sacrifice.

“We took a global look at the budget as a whole and started by asking what we could abandon,” said Terry Haas, the district’s chief financial officer. “What were we doing just because we had always done it and what things could we repurpose?”

Among the items deemed unnecessary to buy again in the future: computer labs, textbooks, maps, globes, calculators, and encyclopedias—all available in electronic form through the laptops. The district also cut 65 jobs, including 37 teachers.

Instead of buying the laptops—and ending up stuck with obsolete models in a few years—Mooresville schools opted for a lease-purchase agreement that allows the district to lease the MacBook Airs for $215 a year, or about $1 million, and resell them after two to three years of use, Haas says. Parents pay an annual $50 technology usage fee that helps pay for repair. The fee is waived for families who cannot afford it.

But the key to the funding for Mooresville’s program was the decision to build the costs into the district’s $46 million budget as a permanent line item.

“If the laptops are going to be used by students and staff 24/7, then we need to refresh them every three to four years,” said Haas. “By making it an ongoing line item in current expense budget, we always have funding there. Otherwise, every three to four years, we’d have to find a large sum of money to buy new ones.”

Find ways to fund it

Mooresville’s approach has become a model for districts around the country that are looking for long-term funding mechanisms and hoping to avoid pitfalls that hobbled other 1-to-1 programs. Every year, Mooresville is visited by representatives from six to seven districts looking to emulate the funding model.

As of October 2011, 2,300 school districts had launched iPad programs in the previous 18 months, according to Apple. Many other districts have adopted 1-to-1 programs using other tablets or laptop computers. The One To One Institute, a nonprofit based in Michigan, puts the number at about 2,000 school districts.

According to a report by Project RED—an initiative to bring technology into classrooms—implementing a 1-to-1 program costs about $100 to $400 per student per year. That figure includes hardware, software, professional development, training, and support.

“The education sector has often failed to experience transformation through the use of technology,” the research project found in a 2010 report. “This failure is due, in large part, to the challenge—real or perceived—of allocating the necessary initial capital budget to start such initiatives.”

A technology financing “toolkit” put together by the One to One Institute cites a wide range of 1-to-1 funding sources, from state technology funds to business partnerships and philanthropic money.

Most districts use federal funding or educational grants, such as Race to the Top money, according to a June 2012 report from Hanover Research Council. A significant number of districts also rely on bonds to pay for the programs.

The Clark County School District in Nevada, for example, used Title I funds to pay for The Engage, Empower, Explore Project, also known as E3, a $2.5-million program that started in 2012 and provided 6,500 tablet computers for students and staff at five low-income middle schools.

Implementation snags

In North Carolina, the Guilford County School District used $30 million in Race to the Top money to lease more than 15,000 tablets from Amplify, the educational arm of News Corporation. However, the four-year pilot program for middle school students and teachers was suspended in October after reports of hundreds of cracked tablet screens and nine melted chargers. The company has since offered to replace the devices.

“We remain committed to personalizing learning and our 1-to-1 initiative,” Guilford County School District Superintendent Maurice O. Green said in a statement. “We need to get these issues resolved quickly so we can continue the good work already underway in our schools.”

Implementation troubles also sank a program this year in Fort Bend ISD, outside Houston, which used a combination of bond, grant and general funds, as well as e-Rate funds, which help pay for telecommunication services. The $16 million program provided 6,300 iPads for second through eighth graders. Among the problems cited in a report on the program was the failure to receive a $1 million grant to develop an interactive learning platform.

But there have also been mixed results from district leaders using bonds to fund 1-to-1 programs. San Diego USD used a successful program to distribute mobile devices to students and funded it with a 2008 bond measure. In the first four years of the program, the district has purchased 80,228 netbooks, 28,700 iPads, and 11,300 Lenovo Android tablets for a total of $70.6 million. Another $11.3 million will be spent on student devices later this fiscal year, spokeswoman Cynthia Reed-Porter says.

The bond money also covers $10.5 million a year in replacement costs and 3 percent for repairs, says Reed-Porter.

Los Angeles USD’s $1 billion iPad program, on the other hand, may be one of the most well-known examples of a beleaguered rollout. The program, which has the goal of supplying tablets to every student and teacher, ran into snarls almost from the start, when students hacked security firewalls to get unfettered access to the internet.

A negotiated discount, which would have set the cost of the tablets at $678 apiece, turned out to be faulty when it was discovered that the discount does not go into effect until the district spends $400 million on the devices, bringing the actual cost up to $770 per tablet.

The cost, which is higher than retail, includes a case, three-year warranty, technical assistance and training, curriculum from Pearson Education Inc., and one Apple TV digital media player for every 20 students.

The program is funded almost entirely with school-construction bonds, which property owners will be paying for years to come and which some critics say doesn’t provide money for replacing devices in the future. District officials have said that reduced need for printers, textbooks, and other supplies—and the prior funding for those items—could be applied toward future devices.

Some lessons to learn from these problems include taking a clear-eyed look at all possible expenses—upfront and down the road, says Haas. It takes at least $1 million to set up the infrastructure, but districts need to look at costs for repairs and refreshing devices. Officials also need to consider the durability of the devices and to be clear on any hidden costs.

“Without a well-planned financial strategy, however, most 1-to-1 initiatives will fail,” Haas notes in a guide she wrote to help districts set up 1-to-1 budgets. “Many school systems have tried but most have failed due to the lack of a plan.”

Planning pays off

In the Orange County School District in North Carolina, district officials used a blend of funding from a county sales tax and the district’s capital budget to pay for a $2.6 million laptop program, which provides devices for grade three through 12. Parents also pay an annual $25 technology fee for insurance and maintenance for 12-inch Lenovo Thinkpad laptops.

The program, which was modeled on Mooresville, also repurposes money that would have gone to curriculum, books, and computer replacement. Even the choice of tablets, which are sturdier and harder to damage than iPads or MacBooks, was done with longevity and cost saving in mind, says Denise Morton, the district’s chief academic officer.

t the Baldwin County School District in Alabama, officials also took their cue from Mooresville and looked for a way to build costs for their “Digital Renaissance” program into the budget, says Chief Technology Officer Homer Coffman. First-year funding for the program, which outfits middle and high school students with MacBook Airs, came from $3 million in budget cuts, including reduction of administrative staff and reallocated textbook funds, and a penny sales tax approved by voters. In addition, a $2 million state bond issue was used to implement the program at the first high school in 2011.

Since then, the remaining 43 schools received funding from the district’s operational budget, Coffman says. The program also expanded this year to supply iPads to K2 students. Each student is required to pay $64 a year for a protection plan and up to a $100 deductible for any damage to a device.

The district spends about 3.3 percent of its annual $305 million budget, or about $9 million, on the “Digital Renaissance” program, including software, hardware, and professional development.

Although there was some initial resistance to the bond measure, Coffman says parents and other community members came on board after seeing the results of the program, which include higher test scores, increased attendance, and fewer discipline problems.

Being honest with the public

Mooresville’s Haas points out that getting community support for funding is a key factor in making a program successful. In Mooresville, school officials held public meetings long before the first MacBook was issued.

“One of the first things I tell folks is that it will be an expensive proposition. If they do it correctly, it will last a good long time, but they need to plan for what they will need down the road,” says Haas. “I tell folks to plan, plan, stop, and plan some more.” DA

Monica Rhor is a freelance writer in Houston.