By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
On Wednesday, February 5, the House Education Technology Subcommittee met to discuss HB 1, “The Alabama Ahead Act.”
The “Alabama Ahead Act,” is sponsored by Senator Gerald Dial (R) from Lineville) and Representative Jim McClendon (R) from Springville. The legislation gives school systems the option of utilizing less expensive or free digital copies in lieu of printed textbooks. This new law will provide public school students with a pen-based tablet, laptop or electronic device beginning in the ninth grade and will add additional grades each year until all students in grades 9-12 are provided a device.
Representative McClendon said in a written statement, “Digital devices in systems in AL have produced lower absences, higher test scores, higher graduation rates, and decreased disciplinary problems. We know the conversion to digital is coming. Shall we promote the Alabama Ahead Act now, or kick the can down the road?”
Rep. McClendon said that students will be better equipped to compete in the global economy. McClendon said, “Our students will be competing globally with students who have been immersed in an interactive education/curriculum from the onset of their academic journey. The Alabama Ahead Act will help provide our students with the tools necessary to compete with their counterparts around the world.”
Rep. McClendon said that HB1 is a funding mechanism for technology using a 20 year bond to finance grants to school system so that they can implement the new technology. In response to criticism from some in attendance that the state should go slow and pay as they go, McClendon said, “There is a lot of people involved in education and technology and finance who have been working on this bill for three years and I would ask you to look at the bill.” Whether or not a system participates or not would be at the discretion of the local school boards.
Alabama Department of Education Deputy State Superintendent for Administrative and Financial Services Craig Pouncey spoke in favor of the bill. Pouncey said that there is so much difference between the have and have not school systems in this state that the state has to get involved to help the have not systems implement technology.
Rep. Phil Williams asked, “Is Madison County a have county?” “I support Rep. McClendon’s bill, but the have and have not language is offensive.” “There are more failing schools in the Huntsville area than anywhere else in the State.”
Superintendent Pouncey said, “I don’t mean to offend anybody.” Pouncey explained that Dallas County get $5400 from the state per child and $200 from local funding while Madison County gets $5400 per child and $2400 in local money so yes Huntsville would be a have by Alabama school standards. Pouncey said that the Huntsville Schools had a leadership problem, but they are moving forward. Many systems have an economic issue. Raise a one mill property tax in Perry County and you only generate $80,000 raise one mill in Baldwin County and you raise over a $million. Without help that poor systems are going to get further and further behind.
The Executive Manager of Technology for the Mobile County Public School System David Akridge said, “You would be horrified by the technology budget I have for 60,000 students.” Akridge said that their internet bill is $3 million a year and that takes up most of the system’s technology budget. “Mobile would be better if you gave me the money instead of paying bond service.” “The things that worry me is sustainability.” “We have 17,000 high school students in Mobile.” Akridge said that if he buys a device and the price range is $200 to $400 then the cost is $6.8 million. Akridge was concerned that the devices would be obsolete in 6 years and the state would still be servicing the bond issue.
Rep. McClendon said that given the budget process in Montgomery there is no way we can get a line item for 2 years much less 20 years. “The worst thing we can do is put in a line item in the budget for technology. The only way to get guaranteed funding is a bond issue. McClendon said that technology funding in the state education budget has been $0 since 2008.
Akridge said, “In 2008 we had $3 million a year to replace computers. Since then that money has gone to the power bill and the light bill.” “I have no money at all to replace teacher’s computers and they are rapidly aging. I can’t replace them.” “I don’t see a difference in cost between buying a hard copy text book and buying one online.”
Rep. Patricia Todd (D) from Birmingham asked, “Does a $100 million put a tablet in the hands of every student in the state?”
McClendon said that the bill does not require that the money be used on tablet computers. It can be used for laptops, tablets, or can be used to upgrade networks systems. Many school systems in the state do not have connectivity
Rep. Todd said that she was concerned about adding another $7 million in debt service to the ETF budget. “What are we going to cut in the current ETF budget?” “I have been concerned that this technology goes out of date as quickly as you bought them.”
McClendon said that the money will come from the amount of money we spend on textbooks we are replacing with the tablets.
Todd said, “I feel like I am the fiscal conservative here.”
Dr. Pouncy said that the state has a line item of $50 million a year for textbooks, “but we are not funding that line item.” “We don’t have text books anymore.”
Rep. McClendon said a lot of systems have their own devices already. Those systems would use the grant money to buy e-textbooks for their systems, while other systems need internet infrastructure and tablets. “There is going to be an expense but hopefully it will not be the $50 million annually that we should be putting into textbooks.” “My two superintendents are chomping at the bit to get this. Right now they are dang near doing bake sales to get devices.”
“Devices do change but the wireless infrastructure has a much longer lifespan than the devices.”
McClendon said, “This is voluntary for those who wish to participate and there are a lot of school systems that would like to be in the digital age.”
Rep. Steve McMillan (R) from Gulf Shores said, “I would rather go with a constitutional amendment that sets aside $8 million a year for technology. I have a real problem with borrowing a $100 million for technology that will be obsolete in three years.”
Rep. Todd said that the state already has total debt of $2 billion.
Akridge said, “I am not going to turn the money down, but if you think this is going to transform education in Alabama via this bill you are going to be disappointed.” “A district in Georgia my size gets $40 million appropriation for technology taxes
Chairman McMillan said that he hopes to have a recommendation from the subcommittee for the full committee next week when the subcommittee meets again.
That meeting is scheduled for 11:00 a.m. on Tuesday, February 11, 2014.