In a startling statement today at the Senate Education Committee, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna tied his plan to give each Idaho 9th grader a laptop to an increase in student-teacher ratios that will eliminate 770 teaching jobs over the next two years.
Luna was responding to a question from Sen. Mitch Toryanski (R-Boise), who said that 90 percent of the questions at a town hall meeting in his Southeast Boise district last night concerned Luna’s plan. Among the most frequently asked questions: Instead of overhauling the entire education system statewide, why doesn’t the state run a few pilot programs to be sure Luna’s concepts work?
The superintendent explained that if the state doesn’t implement the laptop program and mandate that students take at least two online courses each year, “then we do not make the adjustments to student-teacher ratios, so it would be a wash.” But increasing class sizes pays for the laptops and their maintenance.
In other words, Mr. Luna said starkly today that his plan would trade fewer teachers for more technology, plain and simple.
Mr. Luna began his visit to the committee by outlining some more detailed class size averages based on district size. The state’s largest district, Meridian, has an average of 19.6, he said, while the state’s smallest districts (with fewer than 500 students) enjoy a 12.4 ratio. Public charter schools as a group have the largest ratio at 24.8. That’s driven largely by charter-school students’ heavy use of online classes; for example, the Idaho Virtual Academy, run by the Virginia-based K12 Corporation, has a 52-1 student-teacher ratio.
But the committee focused heavily on the laptop plan in its questions to the superintendent. Other issues raised included IT support, computer security, technological obsolescence, and whether rural students have adequate access to broadband Internet.
Committee chair Sen. John Goedde (R-Coeur d’Alene) and Sen. Edgar Malepeai (D-Pocatello) both indicated they were having trouble with their state-supplied computers. Malepeai said he had to call IT support twice in one day, and he asked who would pay for IT support for the 800 or 900 9th-grade laptops he estimated would be deployed each year in his district. Luna said that the state will pay, contracting through companies that are used to providing large-scale technical support for thousands of computers in corporate settings.
“Did you get your computer fixed?” Goedde asked Malepeai afterward. “Because I didn’t.” Goedde also asked whether Luna’s proposed edict that districts use state purchasing contracts would cut out local businesses from serving their neighborhood schools.
Sen. John Andreason (R-Boise) said he is getting many emails about how schools will safeguard students from misusing school-issued computers. “If you hand out laptops to 9th graders, what’s to prevent them from playing games and calling up porn in and out of class?” he asked.
Goedde had a similar question about security and students using the Internet to bully one another. Mr. Luna assured them that the state would have policies in place by fall 2012 to address those concerns. He also said districts need to develop policies on how computers would be used off school grounds. But he emphasized that laptops are the new alternative to textbooks and are for “far more than the Internet.”
Responding to a question from Goedde about rural broadband access beyond the schools, Luna said that discussions he’s had with officials from online course providers including Stevens Henager College and Northwest Nazarene University indicate that only 3 percent of Idahoans are unable to connect with online courses. He added, however, that cost may be a factor limiting access.
Malepeai, a former longtime classroom teacher, sounded a word of caution that Idaho not become “an experimental station” for education. “Reform for the sake of reform is very concerning to me,” he said. “Major reform has to be supported by a lot of data.”