Keeping pace with ever changing technology can be a monetary strain on even the most well run business, and for government it can be an insurmountable burden. Such is the case with the Nevada education system. Controversy is running rampant between the governor’s office and legislative committee hearing rooms about how and why taxpayers should fund computers in the classroom. One side says that without computers, our children will be left in the 20th Century. The other side agrees, but wants to know why $233 million should be spent on computers when other programs are in dire need of overhauls – like standard assessment and school district accountability. But the question is raised, "If other states have found the money to have first rate education systems and several computers in every class, why can’t Nevada do the same?" Here’s a look at Nevada’s national ranking and how our next door neighbor is dealing with this problem.
How Nevada Compares
According to statistics from a 1996 Quality Education Data report, Nevada ranks 37th in the nation when it comes to number of students per computer – or 11.8 students to every computer. Our ranking increases to 23rd for the number of multi-media computers to students – 23.5 students for every multi-media computer. Florida ranks 1st in both categories with 5.9 students for every single computer and 8.5 students to every multi-media computer.
Governor Bob Miller’s ambitious goal for Nevada is to put five computers in every classroom, which comes to 3.86 students to every computer. Using 1996 figures, about 69,000 computers are needed to achieve this goal. However important and necessary this goal might be, we need to look at this plan realistically: How will this plan be funded when there is no surplus?
Currently, 52 percent of the state budget is spent on education, K-12 and the university system. Can Nevada really afford to spend an even larger percent of the budget if this plan passes? It’s doubtful. More money has not proven to increase quality when it comes to government.
California's Technological Solution
Nevada is spending proportionally five times more than California’s $63 million allocated for computers this year. California, which spends 54 percent of the state's general fund on education, has a ratio of 13.7 students to every computer. This ratio is worse than Nevada’s 11.7 student-to-computer ratio.
While California is spending proportionally less money and has a greater need than Nevada, Governor Pete Wilson has dedicated $10 million from the allocated computer funds for a donation program. This program is putting "tens of thousands of computers in schools " with a relatively small governmental investment, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
An Alternative Method of Funding
The program was started by the Detwiler Foundation, a non-profit organization, five years ago in San Diego by John, Carolyn and Diana Detwiler. The family realized there is a huge gap between high-end computers used in businesses and virtually no computers in schools. According to the Detwilers’ research, over 11 million personal computers are taken out of service each year – or one computer for every four students. The Computers for Schools Program works by businesses donating old computers which are then upgraded, refurbished, and repaired at 50 locations in California. The majority of the work is done through 14 state prisons and four California Youth Authority facilities.
Through this program the foundation has put 28,000 computers in California classrooms – everything from 386s to Pentiums. It costs between $250 and $500 in transportation, refurbishment and other costs for each computer the foundation places in classrooms, compared to the $1,500 to $2,000 cost of a new model. Further, prisoners involved in refurbishing the computers learn valuable skills that can be used on release. Because prisoners become gainfully employed, the recidivism rate among these prisoners has greatly declined.
John Detweiler, foundation president, presented this program to the National Governors Association meeting last month, offering to bring this program to all states. Governor Bob Miller and First Lady Sandy Miller both publicly support the program. The governor made reference to it in his State of the State address as an important program that should be brought to Nevada. The first lady is quoted in the Detwiler brochure as saying, ".. this is an opportunity Nevada could not pass up."
However, in recent legislative committee meetings and in the controversy that has bounced through the capitol halls, nothing has been said about implementing this program as an alternative to spending $233 million. If Nevada allocated $10 million, like California, just for buying needed parts to refurbish donated computers, taxpayer money would stretch a lot farther. Maybe if this program were taken off the back burner and considered as viable alternative to the proposed high cost program, every Nevada student could have a computer at his or her desk.
As Mr. Detwiler kindly stated, " There is nothing government can do to fund technology on a reasonable basis. The way states buy things is totally (wasteful)."
Erica Olsen is a research analyst. She is examining important legislative issues this session in an attempt to offer a new perspective on public policy decisions.