Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Weekly Column: Leveling the Digital Playing Field in Virginia's Schools

The following is my column that will appear in the Mt. Vernon Gazette, The Mt. Vernon Voice and Patch in the week of December 2, 2013:

As more and more content goes digital, it has begun to affect our schools.  Textbook publishers have begun to design instructional systems - also called "electronic textbooks" to deliver instruction to children.   
These systems range from relatively static electronic books like you can find on a Kindle all the way to fully interactive learning systems with embedded video, links to external content, and interactive homework modules with extra questions for student struggling with specific concepts.
It is also virtually impossible to find a well-paying job in today's world that does not require computer literacy.  Performing car repairs or running a cash register requires digital literacy. 

In late 2012, I attended a Mt. Vernon District Education Town Hall Meeting.  The crowd was largely upper middle class and not diverse.  Many parents were unhappy about the functionality of new online textbooks deployed in the 2012-2013 schools year by Fairfax County Public Schools.  I was familar with these systems because my third grader is even now doing her math homework using an "electronic textbook." 
After having knocked 12,000 doors in my district and having seen trailers and apartments without home computers or seeing five children crowded around one machine dominated by the oldest child, there was one issue rolling around in my head - access. While many people have smart phones today, thousands of low income families in Northern Virginia and especially in areas like the U.S. 1 Corridor do not have home computers and cannot afford broadband.  More broadly, the lack of digital literacy due to income disparities has been dubbed The Digital Divide.  It is a material factor right here in our community and all over the United States and here in Virginia in all areas - urban, suburban, and rural. 

In 2013, twelve main-line Fairfax County Schools failed accreditation.  Half of those schools are in the U.S. 1 Corridor in the 44th District.  Five were elementary schools that failed solely because of their Science scores.  The Standards of Learning Science test was a new version that required students to test on a computer, but not filling in blanks or doing checkboxes - but by manipulating information using a mouse and keyboard.  Children from low income families do not have the same computer skills as children from Great Falls and it stuck out like a sore thumb in the test results.

This also plays out in admissions to magnet schools like Thomas Jefferson which has only two percent students who qualify for free and reduced lunches and overwhelmingly excludes African American and Hispanic children.

In 1904, Virginians constitutionalized the principle that no child should receive a substandard education due to their family's economic circumstances.  Article VIII, Section 3 of the Constitution of Virgnia provides that "The General Assembly shall . . . ensure that textbooks are provided at no cost to each child attending public school whose parent or guardian is financially unable to furnish them."

Delegate Scott Surovell, Delegate Kaye Kory, Cameron Coleman
from Carl Sandburg (at podium) and two other middle school kids. 
In order to meet our constitutional obligations, I introduced legislation in the 2013 General Assembly Session that would have prohibited any school system from deploying online textbooks unless they can ensure every child has their own computer and a broadband connection at home. 

Three Fairfax County Public School students from different high school pyramids testified about fellow students who did not have computers and having to do research or other tasks after waiting in lines at public libraries.

The legislation was referred to the Joint Commission on Technology and Science (JCOTS) where three hearings were conducted over the last year.  On November 26, 2013, JCOTS recommended that amended legislation be forwarded to the General Assembly for adoption. 

The amended legislation requires any school system that wants to use online textbooks to have a plan in place that ensures every child in its system will have a home computer and broadband connection by July 1, 2017.  It also authorizes pilot programs under certain circumstances. 

Chesterfield County is currently bidding out a contract to provide computers to every child from 6th through 12th grade.  The cost is about $330 per child or about 2% of the $13,472 that Fairfax County currently spends on each ch

Passage of this legislation will take a step to ensure that every child will continue to have the same access to educational materials regardless of their family's circumstances.  If adopted, it will also start the process of assuring that every child in Virginia has a computer and broadband so that they can be fully prepared to compete in the 21st Century economy. 

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