New York Voters Pass $2 Billion ‘Smart Schools’ Tech Bond

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History was made yesterday in New York when voters approved the Smart Schools Bond Act, which will allow $2 billion to be spent on what Governor Andrew Cuomo says will bring the state’s outdated public school classrooms into the 21st century.

Improvements will include making more usable space, installing better security, and purchasing new tools for teachers such as iPads and interactive whiteboards. Governing‘s Liz Farmer reports that the borrowed money will allow for the expanding of schools for the addition of new pre-kindergarten classes, as well as big technology upgrades such as high-speed broadband or wireless internet and additional educational technology equipment.

The result was touted as a mandate even though a little less than half the voters cast an affirmative vote. A simple majority was not met since one in five voters left the choice blank on their ballots.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo backed the bond referendum, so this win, along with his his election to a second term, made the midterm election a good one for the state’s highest officer. Cuomo promoted the act using information from a 2010 study, Project RED, sponsored by Intel, Apple, Qwest Communications, and eChalk. The study found that more technology in schools could reduce the number of students dropping out of school and the need for disciplinary actions.

The study also found that more technology could help improve students’ performance on standardized testing and would prepare them for high-skilled jobs. Supporters also saw the measure as a way to close the technology gap between wealthy and poorer school districts.

Opponents of the act countered that the huge expense incurred would not be paid back until long after the technological equipment purchased became obsolete. They added that there were more important needs for capital spending, like repairing bridges and highways, and even more importantly, reducing the state’s current inordinate debt burden.

The $2 billion will be divided among the 675 school districts in the state based on the state funding formula. The formula uses data like student population and household incomes in each district, writes Leslie Brody of The Wall Street Journal. Then, each district establishes a proposal guided by the specifications of the bond act, which will be subject to approval by the state. According to the formula, New York City will be getting $783 million, which it intends to use for adding prekindergarten classrooms and creating 4,900 other seats in order to reduce class sizes. Both of these projects fall under the guidelines of the funding.

In another piece by Liz Farmer for Governing, written just before the election, the specter of Los Angeles’s much-criticized iPad failure loomed large. The city was criticized for using long-term construction bonds to pay for the first part of its program aimed at distributing an iPad to every student in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Before the program actually got started, the plan was put on hold due to a contracting scandal, but before that happened, Matt Fabian, an analyst with the research firm Municipal Market Advisers, said that bank loans and other short-term instruments like leases had been used for short-life assets.

Also on the ballot in New York yesterday was Proposal 1, seeking approval for changing New York’s drawing of political boundaries, which was also approved, reports the Glens Falls Post-Star. A commission of 10 will draw lines of congressional and state legislative districts every 10 years based on updated Census figures. Proposition 2 was also approved by voters, authorizing their 213 legislators to evaluate legislation electronically instead of depending on paper copies — the “thick stack of bills” they are assigned to read – which proponents say will save trees, save millions of dollars in printing costs and improve efficiency.