Ben Melson, MoakCasey director of advocacy, previously served as the vice president of strategy for the Greater Houston Partnership where he managed the creation of the statewide broadband coalition, Digital Texas.
Ginger Averitt, MoakCasey director of advocacy, worked on several education policy issues during her 20 years at the State Capitol, including public education, school finance, higher education, economic development, taxation and the state budget.
Leo Lopez, MoakCasey chief financial officer, is the former associate commissioner and school finance officer for Texas Education Agency.
Technological innovation has changed our lives. Smartphones have literally put the internet in our back pockets – revolutionizing communication, entertainment, healthcare, financial services and, of course, education.
Today’s students are learning how to write computer code the way students in the past learned cursive. Most of us have embraced technology in all parts of our lives. It’s time for the State of Texas to embrace it in our classrooms.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, access to reliable high-speed broadband internet for teachers, students and administrators became more critical than ever. Texas students were asked to transition to online learning overnight. School districts quickly reported the lack of home internet access and technology as the most significant barrier many of their students faced.
With Texas having more schools in rural areas than any other state, the Texas Education Agency identified more than 1.8 million students without reliable internet, a learning device or both. In response, the State Legislature stepped up, surveying every school district to identify students without access to broadband or a workable device. Those most affected were living in low-income or rural areas of the state.
Governor Abbott and lawmakers quickly approved $200 million in Coronavirus Relief Funding, and established a matching component tied to local school district funding boosting the total amount available to $400 million, so that districts could provide all students with hotspots and devices necessary to engage in online learning.
Those efforts significantly helped close the digital divide in parts of the state. However, in areas of Texas without existing service, there were still hotspots unable to provide the internet connection necessary for a student to join a Zoom session or stream videos.
And while hotspots and personal devices were a solution to the immediate issue, it’s evident that the digital divide will only grow again with updates to infrastructure and technology. There must be a focus on instituting an ongoing funding stream to maintain this necessary reliance on technology.
This year, for the first time, all Texas students will take their grade-appropriate State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR) exams completely online. While this switch will be beneficial as it provides built-in accommodations for students with learning difficulties, it should also be expected that there could be some major hiccups within districts. Thousands of students with devices that are lost or damaged, have parental firewalls, are not charged or simply don’t operate as expected, will likely find themselves unable to access the assessment.
This is just one example of Texas’ ambitions to keep up with technology falling behind its abilities.
Education and policy experts at MoakCasey, Texas’ leading public school consulting firm on finance and accountability, believe it is apparent that the state must adjust revenue streams to maintain ongoing investments in rural areas that need to develop the infrastructure to provide high-speed internet and in urban areas where cost barriers often prevent access. The sentiment also remains for public school districts that fund technology for students. Both will become outdated and require replacements and repairs as time goes on.
The Instructional Materials and Technology Allotment (IMTA) currently provides funding for classroom materials that can include learning devices. However, districts often access that funding for other items such as textbooks or workbooks. So far, there has been no accountability to ensure all students have a working learning device and current levels of funding are not sufficient to meet the long-term technology needs of districts.
MoakCasey encourages lawmakers to increase the IMTA and designate money to provide ongoing funding for technology.
With the state’s unprecedented $27 billion budget surplus, there’s no better time to invest in technology for all public schools than now.
Technology is already a necessary part of students’ lives and an indispensable tool to participate in the digital economy. The State needs to fund it as if it is a necessary part of our future.
MoakCasey is a consulting firm specializing in public school finance, accountability and assessment, economic development and more.