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Editorial

A tablet in every backpack?

Supt. Deasy wants to give each L.A. Unified student a high-tech device. But his plan needs work.

November 16, 2012
  • Supt. John Deasy is seen chatting to students at the Hilda L. Solis Learning Academy on the first day of school.
Supt. John Deasy is seen chatting to students at the Hilda L. Solis Learning… (Los Angeles Times )

Good for the committee that oversees bond expenditures for the Los Angeles Unified School District. Someone had to slow down Supt. John Deasy's headlong rush to put a tablet computer or similar device in the hands of every student and teacher in the district — 700,000 pieces of digital equipment at a cost of about $450 million, not counting more than $200 million (and possibly twice that much) to update campuses for wireless Internet service. The bond oversight committee put the brakes on this poorly planned effort Wednesday when Deasy's request for a first-phase infusion of $17.4 million in school bond money fell short by one vote.

The vote was only advisory, and the school board could still approve the expenditure, but for now Deasy's office says he has no plans to bring it up again, and that's a good idea. Students need access to technology, but the superintendent should take the time to plan this thoroughly, and more frugally, before he asks for money. The purchase of personal computing devices for 650,000 students within a couple of years is the sort of proposal that attracts big headlines and makes school officials look like cutting-edge leaders, but it could easily turn into a boondoggle of extraordinary and unforeseen expense.

Even within the last two months, the proposal has morphed a couple of times. At first the intention was to buy a tablet for each student in the district, right down to the kindergartners. Now officials are talking about a mix of tablets, laptops and possibly smartphones. They're not entirely certain of which ones or in which combination, a sign that the proposal hasn't been thought out. And at Tuesday's board meeting, Deasy still had no answers to various important questions: How would the district cover the cost of lost, stolen or broken devices? Would the schools need extra printers, and if so, how much would have to be budgeted for all that expensive ink?

Also unknown: Would students take the devices home each day, and if so, would they need Internet access, which many of them can't afford? How would the students be kept safe as they walked to school and back carrying expensive equipment?

It remains unclear whether the purchase would be an appropriate, or even legal, use of school bond money. Bonds are intended to pay for capital expenditures — construction, purchase and renovation of land, buildings and durable equipment that will last at least somewhat close to the 20 years or more of the bond program. Bond expenditures have been approved in the past for classroom desktop computers, but it's unclear whether tablets or laptops would be as durable, and usually, bonds may not be used to buy equipment that students take home. Textbooks, for example, may not be purchased with bond money.

Though the district has considered pulling money from several school bond accounts to fund the purchase, this expenditure ultimately would be made possible bythe voters' 2008 approval of Measure Q, an inflated, $7-billion school bond that included $2 billion in unspecified expenses.This page advised voters to reject the measure at the time, saying that it allowed "too much opportunity for board members and bureaucrats … to push pet projects." Here's the evidence.

L.A. Unified would do well to study the example set by the Riverside Unified School District, where a careful, cost-conscious rollout over the last five years resulted in the purchase of tablets and other devices that cost about as much as a science textbook — a little more than $100 each. And it covered most of the expense through grants and private-public partnerships. At this point, the district needs digital equipment for only 3,000 of its 43,000 students.

We have no doubt that in the years ahead, digital devices will lead to remarkable and beneficial changes in the way students learn. Interactive textbooks are already being developed, as are online tests in which the next question changes depending on how a student has answered the previous one. We want Los Angeles' students to be able to take advantage of these and other dramatic advances. But it's more important to make the right decisions, after careful thought and deliberation, than it is to move quickly.

For now, Deasy still has a lot of questions to answer.

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