November 2009 Newsletter

Dear Fellow Educators and Friends,

Throughout my 25 years on the State Board of Education (SBOE), I have watched high paid lobbyists of the technology industry pressure the legislature into buying laptops for school children rather than funding student’s textbooks. Unfortunately, they finally succeeded.

This session, Representative Dan Branch (R – Dallas) passed a bill that allows school districts to use the Permanent School Fund (PSF), normally referred to as the Children’s Textbook Fund, to pay for laptops. While there is little value in arguing the merits of using technology to improve the way we teach our students, we must mindfully plan how to implement this law to avoid the inclination to throw out our current content-based system in favor of the latest fad.

The role of the SBOE is to put laws into practice that are passed by the legislature, one of which is technology, and it has gone a long way in doing this. In 1988, it authored the first Long Range Goals on Technology to apply technology to the textbook-based system by 2010. In 1990, Texas adopted the first electronic textbook in elementary science. Moreover, every year publishers have responded to the SBOE’s Proclamation for Textbooks by integrating technology into their own textbooks.

Texas’s textbook adoption process is considered to be the best in the nation, with its error-free, content-rich material. Many states follow our lead. However, the legislature has failed to follow the Board’s work on this issue because they continuously buy into the falsehood that Texas lags behind other states when it comes to advancing technology in schools.

Most people know that a laptop or desktop computer is not a book. A laptop is to instructional materials what a desk is to a classroom. These machines are not instructional in nature. They are furniture used to facilitate the instructional materials. As with students occupying desks, the software that goes inside the computer is the actual “instructional material” that creates an electronic format. By defining a piece of furniture, such as a laptop, as instructional materials, then chairs, desks, lamps or fax machines can qualify as well.

When the first Texans wrote the state’s constitution in 1854, they created a “School Fund.” By 1876, the money from the fund was almost depleted. So, our forefathers separated the school fund from the legislature and created a Permanent School Fund and a State Board of Education to be the sole managers of this fund (in other words, separation of power, a check and balance system in government). They dedicated the revenue from oil and gas into the corpus starting with $2 million. Under the prudent stewardship of the State Board of Education, the fund has grown to more than $20 billion, generating about $800 million per year. The PSF ranks in the top 10 percent of all education endowments in the nation. It is not tax dollars, and it guarantees school bonds, saving local taxpayers millions of dollars.

Those Texas pioneers dedicated the revenue from the fund for free textbooks for the schoolchildren of Texas. By naming it the Permanent School Fund, the intent was that it last in perpetuity (forever) for future generations of schoolchildren enabling them to always have free textbooks (whether in the form of traditional print or the new technology software instructional materials). Every student in Texas receives free textbooks because of the constitutional mandate from 1876. The Constitution clearly states that the SBOE is to set aside every year enough money to pay for the student’s textbooks. Article VII, Section 3 (b) states: It shall be the duty of the State Board of Education to set aside a sufficient amount of available funds to provide free textbooks for the use of children attending public free schools of this State.

No one is opposed to laptops for Texas schoolchildren. However, the PSF needs to be protected from being completely depleted by using it to purchase expensive computer devices that will go out of date in a matter of a few short years. Computers can be donated if necessary. The Children’s Textbook Fund needs to remain dedicated to instructional materials, such as technology software that goes inside computers, as well as traditional print. Texas schoolchildren and teachers deserve no less!

Many questions remain about how to implement this new legislation into the current Long Range Plan for Technology. As the State Board of Education has successfully moved Texas forward with its complex review process, so it should continue this practice with the laptop legislation. Students should not be short-changed on content. We must assure equity in instruction. As more instructional products become available in digital formats, revisions occur and electronic updates should be readily available as well.

As Texas public schools enter the digital age, the Board remains committed to improving the delivery of instructional materials. Let’s make sure we are mindful of how we bring technology to our schools, while safeguarding one of our most important financial resources, the Permanent School Fund.

Thank you,

Geraldine “Tincy” Miller

State Board of Education member for District 12