SC education leaders want $30 million for schools to go wireless

Beaufort County schools would use money to expand technology options for students

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comJanuary 3, 2014 

The S.C. Education Oversight Committee has a big request of state lawmakers this year -- spend $30 million on technology to help all public school buildings across the state go wireless.

As online tools have increasingly become part of the classroom, committee members now want students to take the technology out of the classroom, to be mobile around the school.

The Beaufort County School District is a step ahead, superintendent Jeffrey Moss said. All district schools already have wireless capability, but he added that additional money would help expand technology offerings for students.

"Anything we can do to increase the amount of technology we have for students, both here and around the state, will be beneficial to prepare them for the economy and world they are moving in to after graduation," Moss said.

Over the past five years, the General Assembly has spent $10 million annually to increase Internet bandwidth in schools, many of which have hard-wired Internet access.

The EOC recommends that lawmakers spend $20 million more next year, said Dana Yow, EOC director of communications, so schools can go wireless.

The S.C. Division of State Information Technology estimates that making all schools wireless would cost roughly $97 million, Yow said.

"In the past we have been doing improvements for hard-wiring," Yow said. "But now there is a move to where a lot of schools are going to one-to-one computing, so there needs to be mobile hubs so devices can be used throughout the schools."

It's unclear how many districts have adequate Internet access. While some, like Beaufort County, might not need infrastructure improvements, Yow said they may need other technology and devices.

The extra money for the district would pay for additional devices for students and provide training for teachers and students to use them, Moss said.

The money could be used to expand the district's tablet program that began last year, in which all sixth- through eighth-graders have iPads. It also could help connect classrooms digitally so a teacher's lesson could be broadcast to other schools or even the state, Moss said.

"It would not just be beneficial for us ... but it would be beneficial for everyone to have our students connect with other students to do some cross-classroom work and save on resources," he said.

While it may require a larger upfront investment, "I think it could end up saving the state money in the long run," Moss added.

The committee makes recommendations to the General Assembly on how to spend money from the state's 1-cent sales tax for education. The state Board for Economic Advisors expects that fund to have an additional $17.8 million to spend next fiscal year, Yow said.

About $10 million of the proposed $30 million would come from that increased revenue. Under the recommendation, the other $20 million would come from the state's general fund, she said.

While the EOC has not specified how it would allot the funds, Yow said she expects it would give more to districts with greater technology needs, like those in rural areas or with under-served populations.

It is up to the General Assembly to accept, tweak or reject the recommendation. Yow said the committee hopes lawmakers will be receptive to the request.

"With all the things students do inside and outside of schools now, we can't teach kids the way we used to," she said. "So I think technology is a great way to be able to innovate, teach and engage students."

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

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