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Cuomo Makes Case For Education Bond Act, Skeptics Remain

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The November 4 ballot includes an amendment to borrow $2 billion dollars to buy new technology for school children, like I-Pads and other tablets.  Fiscal watchdogs are against it, and the education community has been lukewarm. But with one week left to go before voting day, Governor Cuomo who came up with idea, has finally started to push for it.

The bond act would permit the state to borrow money to buy I-Pads and other tablets, plus related technology, like better high speed Internet access, for school children.  It would also pay for new classrooms for expanded pre kindergarten programs, and to replace the trailers that some overcrowded schools in New York City and elsewhere have been using as classrooms.

Cuomo, just days before the election, spoke at length about the $2 billion dollar bond act for the first time since the proposal was included in the state budget.

The governor says it’s the “single best thing” New York can do to provide long overdue access to broadband internet and tablet based learning technology in schools.

“We jumpstart the technology revolution in education,” said Cuomo of the bond act. “Which is long, long overdue.”

Several months ago Cuomo, perhaps anticipating that voters would approve the proposal, appointed a commission to decide how best to spend the money from the bond act. The commission issued its final report on Monday, where members, including Google CEO Eric Schmidt, spoke of the critical need for greater access to high quality Broadband Internet.

Cuomo, who has long been at odds with teachers, school boards, and others in the education community, says  public education is also the largest “public monopoly”, and is resistant to change. He says New York spends the highest amount of money per pupil in the nation, yet gets results that are only in the middle of the pack.

“That is not okay on any level,” Cuomo said. “Our kids deserve better than just an average education system.”  

The language used to describe the amendment is designed to appeal to voters, it will be known as the Smart Schools Bond Act.

But Fiscal watchdog groups say it might not be such a wise idea.  EJ McMahon of the Empire Center, says it doesn’t make sense to use eight year bonds to pay for computer tablets that will be outdated long before the bonds are repaid, with interest.

“They’re assuming a box full of I-Pads that some school buys next year are still going to be useful and not obsolete in 2022,” McMahon said. “Nobody believes that.”

The Citizens Budget Commission says New York State is fast approaching its debt ceiling, and should limit borrowing.  The group points out that there has not been any assessment of what schools actually need.

The State Board of Regents asked for just $1 million dollars for new computers for school children in it’s most recent state aid request, late last year, and is staying neutral over whether New Yorkers should approve the bond act.

Teachers and school administrators did not ask for the funds. They are supportive of the bond act, but they have some reservations.

The executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, Tim Kremer, says there is a “crying need” for better technology in the classrooms, and the school boards hope the bond act could help with that.

But Kremer is also worried about the precedent of borrowing long term to pay for technology, like I-Pads, that could be out of date well before the bonds are paid off.

“It is a concern,” said Kremer “My initial reaction was ‘is borrowing for that kind of technology that is quickly obsolete a very good idea?’.”

New York State United Teachers President Karen Magee says teachers “welcome” additional dollars for technology in the classroom. But she said earlier this year that the bond act funds could bring other costs, like schools paying for better broadband services so that students could actually use the new tablets.  She says teachers may need special training to maximize the use of the new technology.

“Giving kids tablets with no direct instruction and no upgrading along the way, and no access to the Internet, it doesn’t serve any purpose,” Magee said. “There’s a lot of assumptions made when the concept is thrown out. So  it’s all about the details.”

As the vote draws near, education groups seem to be loath to lobby against what could essentially be free money for schools. NYSUT is spending $200,000 on a promotional ad campaign to urge passage of the bond act.

But McMahon, with the Empire Center, says voting against the bond act is not a vote against computer tablets for children or pre kindergarten.

“The bond act is not about that,” McMahon said. “It’s about how to pay for it.”

He says the state already has a multi billion dollar school building aid fund to construct classrooms, and the education budget includes $38 million dollars for new technology for schools.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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