Connecting classrooms: How does Idaho stack up?

Linda Clark had a front-row seat to listen to President Obama last month — and hear his administration’s challenge to bring technology into the nation’s schools.

The message was “heartening,” the West Ada School District superintendent said. In some areas, Idaho is ahead of the game; in other areas, Idaho is playing catchup. But the administration’s vision is consistent with what West Ada is trying to do.

linda clark
Linda Clark

Clark was one of 100 superintendents invited to a Nov. 19 White House summit on school technology — a chance for district leaders to share their experiences in modernizing their schools. Clark was the only Idaho superintendent at the summit.

The event was an offshoot of Obama’s 2013 ConnectED Initiative — with the goal of providing 99 percent of students with classroom broadband within five years. Currently, fewer than 30 percent of the nation’s schools have adequate broadband.

In this area, Idaho is “lucky,” Clark said. The Idaho Education Network has already brought broadband into the state’s high schools. However, the project contract remains embroiled in controversy; a district judge tossed out the $60 million contract last month, and a result of the lawsuit, federally administered funding has been on hold since early 2013.

Even when broadband is in place, that’s only part of the equation. The White House’s initiative has evolved to focus on three other areas: training teachers to use technology effectively; bringing quality digital learning content into the schools; and putting high-tech learning devices into the hands of students.

All three priorities are important, Clark said. And West Ada is trying to address all three.

Even with funding challenges — West Ada’s per-pupil spending is second-lowest in the nation, for schools with more than 10,000 students — the district has been able to cobble together some money for technology pilots. Meanwhile, the price of computing devices is dropping rapidly; the district is negotiating with vendors who could provide devices at $300 per student, a 50 percent decrease from recent prices. Ultimately, Clark believes Obama has set an attainable goal, of seeing the price of computing devices in line with the cost of a textbook.

West Ada, and other Idaho districts, still need state help in buying digital content and training teachers.

When the state cut operational funding during the Recession, districts had fewer free dollars to buy learning materials, Clark said. The 2014 Legislature restored $35 million in operational funding, but it’s expected to cost an additional $78 million to reverse the rest of the cuts.

Teacher training time also fell victim to Recession-era budget cuts. West Ada, the state’s largest school district, has been unable to restore five professional development days to its calendar.

“We really need investment in all three of these areas,” Clark said.

Despite these financial challenges, Clark came away from the summit believing her district and state is ready to provide a connected learning environment. “I think Idaho schools are very well poised to grab this and run.”