Gates money

$89M Microsoft settlement funds tech for schools as needs loom

With a transition to computer-based testing on the horizon, the state is preparing to hand out millions of dollars so schools with low-income students can buy the technology they’ll need to make the switch.

State Education Commissioner John King announced today that $87 million in unclaimed vouchers from a 2006 class-action settlement with Microsoft Corporation would fund technology spending for 1,878 low-income schools, including more than 1,000 in New York City. The funding will give the schools $67 per student to spend as they wish on approved kinds of technology.

The windfall comes as state education officials are coming to terms with the fact that districts are not prepared to make the change from paper-based tests to online tests. New York is part of a consortium of states that are planning to adopt tests aligned to the new Common Core learning standards that would be administered entirely online by 2015. But many schools in the state do not currently have enough computers, or bandwidth, to be able to administer computer-based tests to all of their students.

“What I hear is alarm over the prospect of having to make that shift,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

Many superintendents are already grappling with growing pension payments and new costs associated with implementing teacher evaluation plans, he said. Districts would have foot most of the bill associated with technology upgrades, too.

“In a perfect world this is absolutely the direction we should be moving,” Lowry added, speaking to computer-based testing. “Getting from here to there, giving the current financial prospects, is intimidating.”

As a first step, the State Education Department has asked districts to do an inventory of their computer equipment and network infrastructure — how many servers and wireless access points keep their schools connected. While officials have not disclosed any results, State Sen. John Flanagan said last month at a legislative hearing that many district officials told him they weren’t even able to keep pace with their current technology needs.

“This is an area where SED isn’t listening as well as it should,” said Flanagan, who said King should be asking the legislature for more money to fund technology.

For a second straight year, King is asking for $500,000 to fund a computer-based testing pilot in a small number of schools. The legislature denied last year’s request.

King said he hoped that one solution to the fiscal crunch would be money from the Microsoft settlement, also called the Cy Pres Fund. In addition to supporting the shift to computer-based testing, King said the funding would help narrow a growing technology gap between rich and poor students at a time when more careers rely on advanced computer skills.

“Far too often, students in low-income school districts miss out on the use of the latest technology in the classroom,” King said in a statement. “Our goal is to graduate every student with the skills and knowledge they need to be successful in college and careers. Technology is an important tool to help students reach that goal.”

“These funds will help level the playing field for thousands of students,” he added.

The voucher program allows schools to spend its money in two ways. Half can be spent on hardware, such as on desktop computers, laptops, tablets, scanners, and fax machines. Hardware can also include routers and servers to boost school bandwidth. The other half can be spent on software for the computers.

The money must be spent by Nov. 1, 2014. Eligible schools can begin applying for the vouchers on Monday.

The funding is money that’s left over from a class action lawsuit with Microsoft brought by consumers from several states that claimed the corporation broke antitrust laws and overcharged for its products. In New York, much of the $225 million settlement  went unclaimed by New Yorkers and, as part of the agreement, half of the unclaimed funds went back to Microsoft. The other half will be spent on school technology.

New York is one of the last states to receive its Microsoft payout for schools. Wisconsin, for instance, received about $75 million for education funding back in 2009.

Why not Michigan?

As Michigan’s poorest 4-year-olds wait for classroom seats, free pre-K for all kids seems elusive

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
All New York City four year-olds — including these kids who attend school is in the city's education department headquarters — are guaranteed a spot in a city-funded pre-K. In Michigan, far fewer students have access to free preschool.

Michigan is the home to America’s most famous study on the benefits of early childhood education.

But when it comes to providing free prekindergarten for all children, other states and cities are leading the way.

Vermont, Florida, Washington, and the District of Columbia have public programs for all 4-year-olds, regardless of income. Seven more states have greatly expanded their pre-K programs, too, including Wisconsin, where free voluntary pre-K is in the state’s 1848 constitution.

But not Michigan. Not yet, at least.

The pioneering Perry Preschool Study began in Ypsilanti in 1962 and followed 123 study participants starting at age 3 through the age of 40. Among the study’s  findings: Those who went to pre-K were more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to repeat grades. They were also less likely to use drugs or commit crimes.

As they grew older, they were more likely to be employed and to have stable homes, savings accounts, significantly higher incomes, and report good relations with their families.

Skills such as cooperative play lay the groundwork for children to get along with others. In addition, learning to use fine motor skills and mastering shapes, colors, numbers, and the alphabet, contribute to future growth.

Further research has underscored the worth of pre-K, making it a rare realm of bipartisan support. In fact, funding for early childhood education has risen under the past three governors.

“I’ve been around long enough to see Democrats and Republicans in office, and early childhood education continues to be on the radar as a positive,” said Lena Montgomery, director of the Wayne County branch of the Great Start Readiness Program, a state funded initiative for 4-year-olds from low-income families.

But even though the governor’s own 21st Century Education Commission recommended that Michigan expand pre-K with $390 million in new investment, he chose instead to further study the impact of Great Start. In his most recent budget, he allocated $300,000 to do that research, and kept spending for Great Start flat at $245.6 million.

Momentum toward providing publicly funded pre-K, often called universal preschool, has been slowed by cost, teacher shortages, and family resistance, advocates say. They also note that there is no incentive for different institutions to pool their money to pay for a more comprehensive pre-K program in the state.  

Other states and cities have navigated similar challenges. But Michigan families face a patchwork of options. They may keep young children at home, pay for private childcare or pre-K, or, if they meet income or disability requirements, they can enroll them in Great Start or federally funded Head Start. Both are designed to support vulnerable children, including families with low-incomes.

But there aren’t enough seats, even for every child in need. Great Start’s Montgomery said she has 27 programs with qualified families on wait lists. It’s common, she said, for policymakers to say they support children. But some families are still falling into the gaps because more money is needed, she said.

About 133,000 Michigan children are not enrolled in any early childhood program.

Half of Wayne County’s 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in various pre-K programs, said Iheoma Iruka of Highscope, though she added that “we can’t vouch for the quality of these programs.”

The education plan of Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic nominee for governor, advocates for a universal program that expands Great Start until all 4-year-olds are eligible, similar to what the 21st Century Education Commission recommended. It would be paid for, according to her campaign staff, with anticipated increases in the School Aid Fund, which is mostly made up of sales, income, and property taxes. It would also use tax revenue from, among other things, the marijuana ballot initiative that’s expected to pass in November. Tax hikes shouldn’t be necessary, her staff said.

Bill Schuette, the Republican nominee, has an education plan that emphasizes third-grade literacy over pre-K. It mentions need-based transportation scholarships for preschoolers, and he said in a recent interview that universal pre-K was an option that he’d consider.

Hope Starts Here, the $50 million initiative created by the Kellogg and Kresge foundations to improve Detroit’s early childhood systems, has a number of suggestions to pay for universal pre-K. Among them: a dedicated tax proposal, a local sales tax on alcohol, coordinated philanthropic and corporate giving, and leveraging all federal grant money.

States and cities around the nation have experimented with other strategies. Georgia tied pre-K funding to the state lottery. New York City’s new universal program for all 3- and 4-year-olds comes from a mix of city, state and federal funding. Oklahoma, a pioneer in the field, discovered that school districts with half-day kindergartens were receiving state money meant for full-day programs. Lawmakers reformed the state aid formula so that those resources went into pre-K. (The districts had been spending the extra money on sports.)

Others have expanded access by combining different sources of money. North Carolina integrated pre-K with its K-12 schools and contributed part of the Title 1 money that’s allocated to school districts. Chicago is moving toward universal pre-K with a mix of state and district budget increases, and block grants. Washington, D.C. blends Head Start and local funding into its education formula.

A pilot model for blended funding in Michigan can be found in Flint, where the state’s only Educare program is based on the grounds of a former elementary school. The national Educare Early Learning Network draws from multiple revenue sources, including federal, state, and philanthropic dollars.

But regardless of where the money is coming from, opportunities to expand pre-K programs may be missed because of the statewide teacher shortage. In addition,  salaries are not as high as they are in K-12 schools. The median salary for Head Start teachers is $27,613, and for lead Great Start teachers, $37,440, according to a statewide advocacy organization.

To recruit and retain more teachers at all levels, including pre-K,  a new public-private initiative called Teach 313 launched in Detroit in August. Other places facing shortages or high turnover for its preschool teachers have turned to Teach for America to fill gaps, or provided scholarships for early childhood educators to obtain degrees that would raise their wages.

But before Michigan can explore other strategies and expand into universal pre-K, it needs to make the program it already has available to more families.

If you ask Montgomery from Great Start about her wish list, it begins with providing pre-K to all the children who are sitting on waitlists.

“It would be wonderful to to say to parents, ‘We have a spot for your child,’” Montgomery said. “ ‘You don’t have to wait for someone to drop out or leave.’ It would be wonderful to say to the people who want to run programs, or to expand their programs in their communities, ‘We have the funds for you set up and run a high quality program.’ ”

enrollment

Who’s in and who’s not? Chicago board to announce new boundaries for popular Taft High

PHOTO: Tim Boyle / Getty Images
Taft High School is one of Chicago Public Schools' most overenrolled campuses. In 2019, it will spin off its freshman class to a separate campus.

The Chicago school board will announce much-anticipated new attendance boundaries on Tuesday for one of its most crowded schools, William Howard Taft High School on the Northwest side.

Starting next school year, Taft will spin off one grade level to a new campus, the Taft Freshman Academy, which is expected to enroll 1,000 freshman. Chicago Public Schools will give those living within the new attendance area priority in enrollment.

“I look forward to what CPS has to say about the new campus,” Taft Principal Mark Grishaber told Chalkbeat Chicago. “This is good for every kid on the Northwest side.”

A community meeting on the new boundaries will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Wilbur Wright College, 4300 N. Narragansett Ave.

At its regular monthly meeting at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, the board will discuss the Taft boundaries and also what to do about its underrolled schools, which are primarily neighborhood schools.  A state law signed in August requires Chicago to make a plan for intervening in schools that do not have enough students.

The Chicago school district faces a critical decline in enrollment, but still plans to invest $1 billion to shore up existing schools and build new ones.