School is back in session, and school districts across the country can learn important lessons from the top five districts in California about how to pay for the technology needed for the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). State Budget Solutions (SBS), a nonprofit research organization, has completed a case study on Los Angeles, San Diego, Long Beach, Fresno, and Elk Grove and found that there are right and wrong ways to fund the new computers for students, though the solutions may still vary by district.
The actual dollars needed for the new standards, particularly the high cost of technology upgrades, are stacking up quickly. States such as California that are unlikely to change their plans to adopt the CCSS must now consider the real financial costs to ensure that local school districts are ready to abandon No. 2 pencils in favor of iPads, Chromebooks, and Windows tablets to assess their students.
The 45 states that adopted the standards in 2010 were well aware of the financial rewards offered by the federal government for doing so. This funding has made the transition somewhat easier, but for the districts we studied, it was still insufficient.
To help fill this gap, California approved $1.68 billion in Common Core funding for the entire state, thanks to Proposition 30, which hiked income- and sales-tax rates. However, state funds could not fully finance the massive technological overhaul that most school districts, especially those in rural areas, had to make to meet Common Core online-testing requirements. Districts found themselves carrying much of the financial burden, looking to local bond measures, private organizations, and federal sources for additional Common Core funding.
SBS found that of the five districts, the Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) is the most prepared, primarily because it has accepted outside funding from foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. LBUSD has also opted to establish computer labs rather than give individual devices to students.
Compare that with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), which has suspended its contract with Apple for iPads due to high costs and ethical questions. LAUSD superintendent John Deasy set a goal to give every student, teacher, and administrator an iPad, at the cost of $768 per device. This cost, along with the cost of necessary network upgrades, exceeds $1 billion.
Last year, LAUSD’s school board spent millions in proceeds from public bonds intended for school infrastructure and construction to fund the new iPad program. Nonetheless, the district has distributed iPads to only a few dozen schools, totaling less than 1 percent of the district. The program has come under further scrutiny because of questions regarding Deasy’s relationship with Apple and the execution of the bidding process.
California tried to alleviate district-readiness concerns last year by passing Assembly Bill 484 to allow districts to prepare for only one, instead of two, of the new computer-based Smarter Balanced Assessment tests (in math and English) by March 2014. In response, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan threatened to withhold up to $3.5 billion in federal funding if California did not comply with federal mandates for testing in both subjects. California legislators eventually took out the provision, leaving districts with more work and less time to prepare for the new standards.
This case study should help other districts develop new ideas for implementing Common Core. For example, eliminating arbitrary deadlines and implementing the technology through a performance-based rollout would give districts enough time to evaluate the program and obtain the necessary funds.
Plenty of other solutions exist that have yet to be explored, and it would benefit states and school districts to review all of their options. As schools begin to officially test and implement the new standards for the first time this year, they can learn further lessons from the successes and failures of the Common Core in districts across the country.
— Hannah Oh is a visiting analyst at State Budget Solutions, focusing on education. Joe Luppino-Esposito is editor and general counsel of SBS.