On the November ballot this year is an example of the peculiar, expensive, and sometimes devious way that New York's elected officials run our government. Proposal 3 (dressed up, to win votes, as "the Smart Schools Bond Act of 2014") authorizes the state to borrow up to $2 billion for "the single purpose of improving learning and opportunity for public and non-public students in New York."
The money would pay for:
• Technology equipment such as computers, computer servers, interactive whiteboards, and tablets;
• Installation of high-speed broadband or wireless internet connectivity;
• High-tech security features;
• Construction and improvement of school facilities to accommodate pre-kindergarten programs and to replace "transportables" (trailer units used as classrooms).
The state has already determined how much of the bond revenue each school district would get, basing allocations on the state-aid formula. Districts will apply for the funds, submitting proposals to a review committee composed of the state budget director, the education commissioner, and the SUNY chancellor.
Bonding for classroom construction and improvements can be important, and the expansion of pre-K programs is part of the ongoing effort to improve education, particularly for its poorest children.
Many schools would benefit from strong internet connectivity. Technology is crucial for schools serving poor children whose families may not have access to technology; knowledge of technology will be crucial when students try to enter the workforce. And any school in which security is important could benefit from high-tech systems that provide security without making students feel as if they're walking into a prison.
But other aspects of Prop. 3's high-tech provisions are questionable. The debt will last far longer than computers and tablets. And the money from this proposal won't pay for training or equipment repairs, upgrades, and replacement – all of which will be essential. Those costs will have to be borne by school districts.
Giving schools technology equipment has a certain sex appeal. But, says Kent Gardner, chief economist at the Center for Governmental Research: "There's very little evidence that technology has this transformative effect on education. A lot of times you're throwing technology at teachers who don't understand how to use it."
And Gardner says: "Nobody seems to be asking for it. Do you have any idea where this idea came from?"
The Monroe School Boards Association won't be taking a stand on Prop. 3, says its executive director, Jody Siegle.
"Generally," Siegle said recently, "most school board organizations are taking the position of, 'We'll take the money if you give it to us, but this isn't how we would have done it. We have other priorities.'"
"The first we heard of it," Siegle added, "was in the governor's budget address."
Rochester School District spokesperson Chip Partner had a similar reaction to our query. "I'm not aware of any lobbying or letters of support that we've given to Prop. 3 about technology funding for schools," he said. "The district does traditionally do well in competitive grants for technology. Yes, we would benefit. No, we're not doing anything formally."
The money would certainly be hard to turn down. In total, the school districts in Monroe County would receive just over $93 million, Siegle said. Of that, the Rochester school district would get $47 million.
The downside: Interest is estimated at between $100 million and $130 million annually – for 15 years or more. Couldn't the state let school districts use a share of that amount of money for operations? "That would make a difference every year," Siegle said.
Despite its advantages, there's too much wrong about too much of Prop. 3. Funding for non-public as well as public schools, long-term debt to pay for short-lived equipment, providing equipment without the funding for training and repairs (yet another "unfunded mandate"): all of this leads us to recommend a "no" vote.
FYI: If you care enough about the proposal to vote on it, you'll have to look for it. It's on the back side of the ballot. (Our endorsements for Props. 1 and 2 are at rochestercitynewspaper.com.)