JFAC leaves tech details on hold

(UPDATED, 5:24 p.m., with comments from Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde.)

The numbers were more or less set Monday, as the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee approved a $66 million boost in the public schools budget.

But budget-writers left themselves with work to do on two small but contentious pieces of a $1.7 billion budget — high school WiFi technology and the troubled Schoolnet instructional management system.

Both components of the budget are on hold — at least until Thursday — while lawmakers haggle over the details of legislative “intent language.”

Through “intent language,” budget-writers dictate how agencies will spend the money the state has appropriated. And on both WiFi and the instructional management system, the debate does not center on the dollar figures, but instead on the ground rules.

WiFi. JFAC earmarked $2.25 million to continue installing and maintaining wireless technology in high schools and junior high schools. But the question is whether to continue a controversial multiyear contract with Education Networks of America, or allow districts to shop around for their own wireless systems.

State Superintendent Tom Luna has been a vocal supporter of a statewide WiFi system — and ENA, which is supposed to have wireless installed in 175 schools by mid-March. But he said he is comfortable with the “intent language,” since schools would still be required to purchase a WiFi system that meets the same standards set by the state contract.

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Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde is leading the push to dismantle the WiFi contract, saying the money should instead go to districts. He told Idaho Education News that he isn’t satisfied with the JFAC “intent language,” and would rather reopen the contract to allow all schools the option to stick with ENA or cut their own deals. This still gives ENA a competitive edge, said Goedde; some districts would opt to stay put simply because ENA’s equipment is already in place.

Instructional management systems. The state is at a crossroads on continuing this system — which is supposed to give teachers student data in real time, so they can model their lesson plans. A three-year, $20.5 million J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation grant has run its course, and the state’s contract with Pearson Education Inc. expires on June 30. The Schoolnet pilot has been rocky, with district officials complaining that the system has been plagued with inaccuracies.

The question for JFAC, and for the rest of the Legislature, is where to proceed. JFAC earmarked $4.5 million for the system — which mirrors the matching funds the state put into Schoolnet in 2013-14. But the JFAC “intent language” lays out two options: rebidding the Pearson contract, or giving districts money to purchase their own instructional management system.

It’s possible that Pearson could again receive the state’s contract, or it’s possible that districts would decide to purchase Schoolnet on their own. But the intent language could also phase out Schoolnet in the future.

On Monday, Luna downplayed the impact of the intent language — and said the state would still own the Schoolnet technology acquired during the pilot phase. “Our efforts are not lost.”

On Thursday, JFAC is expected to chart its course on WiFi and Schoolnet. And another controversial school budget line item is on the docket for Wednesday, when JFAC considers the state Department of Administration’s request for $7.3 million to keep the Idaho Education Network broadband system on hold through 2014-15.

With lawmakers hoping to adjourn on March 21, this shapes up as a crucial week on the education budget front.

More reading: Here’s a detailed analysis on the WiFi and Idaho Education Network controversies.

Disclosure: Idaho Education News is funded through a grant from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation.