Two lawmakers want $100M bond for move to digital textbooks
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Oct 19, 2013 | 4499 views |  0 comments | 42 42 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Anna Dunteman and Drew Bence work on iPads at Weaver Elementary School on Friday. In front of Anna is her Alabama Storytown textbook. (Photo by Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star)
Anna Dunteman and Drew Bence work on iPads at Weaver Elementary School on Friday. In front of Anna is her Alabama Storytown textbook. (Photo by Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star)
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MONTGOMERY – Two Alabama lawmakers hope to replace all the state's school textbooks with computing devices, and they're asking for a $100 million bond issue to pay for it.

Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, and Rep. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, say the state will actually save money by making the switch.

"Textbooks are obsolete," Dial said. "Replacing them is a real problem. We think we'll save $15 million by using electronic devices."

Dial and McClendon were the sponsors of the Alabama Ahead Act, a bill passed in 2012 that set up a board charged with providing the state's school districts with money to buy computing devices – laptop or tablet computers, for instance – for all their students. That bill authorized the board to issue as much as $100 million in bonds to pay for the project, but made the issuance of the bonds contingent on the Legislature's approval.

A new bill, again sponsored by Dial and McClendon, would give the board the go-ahead to raise and spend the $100 million. House and Senate versions of the bill are already pre-filed for the 2014 legislative session, which begins in January.

"The first bill let us lay the groundwork," Dial said. "This bill will allow them to spend the money."

Advocates of the book-to-device switch have long argued that kids learn more by doing research on the Internet than by reading a small collection of prepared texts.

Computers are also beginning to appeal to budget hawks, who point to the cost of of replacing print textbooks – and the consequences of not replacing them.

"A textbook has to last seven years, and a textbook just can't last seven years," Dial said. "The condition of our textbooks is deplorable."

Calhoun County Schools Superintendent Joe Dyar said state support for textbook purchases dropped considerably after the recession. The state gave Calhoun County about $60 per student for books before 2008, he said. That dropped to about $7 per student, before beginning to rise slowly.

Dyar said he'd gladly switch to an all-digital approach, but buying electronic devices for every student would cost $1.3 million to $1.4 million.

"We don't have the resources to purchase the devices," he said.

Under the proposal by Dial and McClendon, the state would cover 75 percent of the cost of new electronic devices. Districts would decide what sort of devices they would provide and would submit an application showing how they intend to use the devices.

"We wanted to make the local districts talk about what they really want," McClendon said. "Of course, everybody wants high-end equipment, but they need to talk about what they can actually afford."

Dial said $100 million in bonds could be paid back at a cost of about $7 million per year. He said the state spends roughly $35 million per year on textbooks.

Still, the cost of textbooks wouldn't instantly go away. McClendon and Dial both acknowledged that the switch would take years, partly because some districts have less computer infrastructure in place.

"We have schools in the state that are on all different places on the curve," McClendon said.

Wellborn Elementary School principal Jeanna Chandler said her school is ready to make the change. She said the school already allows students to bring their own electronic devices to school for use in the classroom – and about 60 percent of kids in the higher grades do.

The school is trying to find money to provide devices for the rest, she said.

"It will take a few years, but we're trying to get as much as we can," she said.

The bond issue wouldn't reimburse districts, such as Piedmont City Schools, that have already provided computers for every student, Dial said, though those schools could apply for funds for new projects. Attempts to reach Piedmont Superintendent Matt Akin on Friday were unsuccessful.

Dial is up for re-election in 2014, and he already has two opponents for his Senate seat – Republican primary challenger Tim Sprayberry and Democrat Darrell Turner. Attempts to reach Sprayberry and Turner on Friday were unsuccessful.

McClendon is challenging Sen. Jerry Fielding, R-Sylacauga, in the primary for the District 11 Senate seat. Attempts to reach Fielding for comment Friday were unsuccessful.

Democrat Ron Crumpton, who has also announced a run in District 11, said he supported the Alabama Ahead Act in theory. He said the act should include a sunset clause, requiring it to come up for reapproval in two or three years, in case the program's costs run too high.

"It seems like a lot of money to spend on something that could be easily lost or destroyed," he said.

Local educators said a shift away from textbooks wouldn’t be a threat to school libraries, or to the use of books for young children just learning to read.

“The goal is to give them information in a variety of formats,” said Saks Elementary Principal Crystal Sparks.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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