News: CJ Exclusives

Education Budget Keeps Handheld Devices Running

School officials tout benefits of devices; lawmakers balk at cost

For the last year, Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson has been telling anyone who would listen about a nifty little piece of technology that helps teach elementary school children to read. Provided to selected school districts as part of the federal Reading First program, the “handheld device,” as it’s being called, is really nothing more than a Palm Pilot loaded with a special software program keyed to a set of reading materials arranged by ability level.

Used by teachers in kindergarten through third grade, the device enables the teacher to follow as the student reads a selected passage, while highlighting and recording instantly specific words the student struggles with.

The device analyzes this input and gives the teacher immediate feedback on the student’s progress, telling the teacher exactly what remediation steps are necessary for that particular student, or what level and activity of advancement the student is ready for.

At the end of the day, the results for all students are downloaded to a computer that analyzes the data further, and suggests specific activities for the class as a whole.

Atkinson: phenomenal results

According to Atkinson, the results in the districts where the handheld devices have been used have been nothing short of phenomenal. At the May 7 meeting of the State Board of Education, she reported that in the 40 schools where the device is being used in a pilot program, nearly 84 percent of third graders are reading at or above grade level, compared with a mere 56 percent of third graders at or above grade level statewide.

But the program nearly became one more victim of the recession-induced cutback in education spending. Before the legislative short session began, Gov. Bev Perdue requested nearly $40 million to equip all elementary schools in the state with the devices, the software, and the related materials.

In its first take on the education budget for Fiscal Year 2010-11, the Senate agreed only to allocate $15 million, just enough to keep the pilot program going in the 40 schools where it already existed.

The House of Representatives was even less generous. House budget writers initially planned to spend only $5 million on the pilot program, reasoning that districts that wanted to keep it going could come up with local funds to fill in the gap. But even that was a hard sell. During discussions in the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee, members expressed serious reservations about spending even that much on the program in a year when money is so tight.

Finally, as the budget was clearing its final committee hurdle (House Appropriations), members decided to spend the $5 million on an “emergency textbook fund” instead of the hand held devices. The version of the budget passed by the House contained no funding for the program whatsoever.

The final budget agreement included an extra $10 million to keep the program alive. Local school districts who now use the devices can continue to use them even if state funding runs out, so long as they find other ways to pay for them.

Teachers at Wadesboro Primary School in Wadesboro have been using the devices and the associated software for two years, and couldn’t be happier with the results. Principal Betsy Ammons says her staff was skeptical at first, but experience has convinced the school of the program’s merits.

“Our teachers didn’t want to lose the devices when the money ran out [after the first year], so we opted to use [federal] Title I funds to keep the program alive,” she said. Schools such as Wadesboro Primary that serve a high percentage of economically disadvantaged students receive Title I funds to offset the higher cost of educating children from poor families.

The school’s Reading First coordinator Linda Morton said, “Using this device saves the teacher so much time — time that could be used for further instruction.” She pointed to figures generated by the program showing a substantial growth trend in individual students’ test scores from the beginning-of-year, middle-of-year, and end-of-year assessments.

But no matter how popular the program is with the teachers who use it, the $40 million Perdue asked for was an insurmountable price tag, at least to the legislators in charge of the purse strings.

Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, tried to move the funding for the devices into another hard-hit program (school bus replacement). Tillman said that the situation “reminds me of the Christmas when there was no money.”

Jim Stegall is a contributor to Carolina Journal.