The State Board of Education put a price tag on the state’s share of a transition to digital learning materials for public school students across Florida — $441 million — while signaling that it also supports school districts having more freedom to select their textbooks.
The digital learning figure is part of the State Department of Education’s $15.2 billion budget request to the Legislature, which would mark a 4.4 percent increase in the department’s spending plan above the current fiscal year. The board approved the request Tuesday.
Lawmakers are expected to potentially have a $71.3 million surplus to work with for the budget year that begins July 1, but even some budget-writers are cautious of that figure.
Lawmakers have helped drive the state toward more reliance on digital learning materials, passing a bill two years ago requiring schools to adopt digital-only textbooks by the 2015-16 school year and spend at least half their textbook budget on electronic materials.
The budget proposal from the department focuses more on the nuts-and-bolts approach to making that happen: Setting up schools with the capability to make iPads and Kindles useful and making sure that students actually have the devices.
The plan would devote almost $239 million to equipping schools with wireless Internet capabilities, something that 1,616 schools in Florida — almost half the total — currently lack. It would take another $151 million to make sure that every school in the state has access to quality broadband Internet access; 263 schools in Florida have no broadband access at all.
The final $51.7 million would be spent to defray some of the costs of increasing the number of computing devices that students could use — such as iPads, though the department would not require districts to use a certain brand or device. The proposal accounts for leasing each of the devices for three years at $170 a year.
“That’s a great price,” said David Stokes, chief information officer for the State Department of Florida. “Well, how are we going to do that? It’s going to be extremely challenging.”
Stokes said he believed that the state could get the deal by working with vendors.
At the same time, board members are preparing to challenge the textbook adoption process. Districts have to use the state list created by the process for some, but not all, of their textbook purchases. But several board members voiced support for getting rid of textbook adoption, freeing districts to use whatever materials they want for the classroom.
Roberto Martinez, the vice chairman of the board, said the move would allow school districts more flexibility to reach goals set by the state.
“If they want to use textbooks, let them use textbooks,” he said. “If they want to use primary-source material, fine. Digital, fine. Whatever it is. But I think we’re at that stage where we can give them that kind of freedom to accomplish the outcomes that we want.”
A textbook flexibility bill included in the department’s priorities would begin to move the state away from the process. Instead, officials envision a system where the department will offer to vet materials for districts that might not have the resources to review the materials on their own.
Okaloosa County Superintendent Alexis Tibbetts, president of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, enthusiastically supported the change.
“That’s going to be the answer to prayer,” she said.
But board members and supporters of the move warned that any effort to get rid of the policy will likely face a fierce fight in the Legislature by publishers.
Indeed, Jay Diskey, executive director of the school division of the Association of American Publishers, said in an interview that the state should preserve textbook adoption.
“The process in Florida has been a way for Florida to ensure that its school standards appear in the curriculum,” Diskey said.
He also noted that Florida is one of nearly 40 states that are preparing to move toward a more standardized curriculum.
“It’s probably the worst possible time for Florida to walk away from this process,” he said.
–Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida