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Digital devices, content in schools facing funding gaps

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(The Center Square) – Digital devices and content are facing funding gaps, a fiscal analyst told a North Carolina legislative education committee on Monday.

Eric Moore, fiscal analyst with the Fiscal Research Division, said connectivity was in a “good place.” He described “significant funding gaps” for devices and content to the Select Committee on Education Reform in the House of Representatives.

School technology funding comes from three main sources, Moore said: $18 million transferred annually from a Civil Penalty Forfeiture Fund to a School Technology Fund, a Digital Learning Initiative, and school connectivity funding.

In total, state appropriations for all three have varied from a low of about $35 million in the 2020-21 school year to a high of about $70 million in 2016-17. In 2021-22 and 2022-23, the combined funding was a little under $60 million, which increased to about $65 million in the current school year.

That funding was supplemented in recent years by federal pandemic relief money that totaled about $183 million for computer software and supplies, $445 million for computer equipment and hardware, and $374 million for supplies and materials.

“This was all on top of funding from the state,” Moore said.

Vanessa Wrenn, chief information officer for the Department of Public Instruction, told lawmakers school surveys show there’s about 1.98 million student devices in schools, including those used in computer labs, spares, and damaged devices.

A device for every student is in 114 of 115 public school districts, and in 162 of 215 charter schools. The majority are Chromebooks that students take home. With the loss of pandemic relief money, 89 of 115 school districts will lack funding to sustain the technology. With the recommended replacement cycle every four years, and a cost of about $525 per device, the financial need could be significant, she said.

“We know there’s going to be a need for sustained funding,” Wrenn said. “We know the loss of the COVID funding will have a bigger impact on our charters.”

Jeni Corn, director of research and evaluation at the Department of Public Instruction, also presented lawmakers with the latest research on post-pandemic learning recovery.

The “year-over-year” recovery analysis showed gains in most subjects and grades, though most remain below prepandemic performance. In some subjects, such as third-grade reading, students have reversed a downward trend before the pandemic, while in others, such as high school English, students made progress during the pandemic that has since flatlined.

“On average, the data shows North Carolina schools are showing signs of … recovery in virtually every subject” with the best results in third grade reading, Corn said.

Other discussion centered on a new artificial intelligence guidance for K-12 schools from the Department of Public Instruction, and an update from Randolph County School System Superintendent Stephen Gainey.

Gainey told lawmakers his county teachers have worked to strengthen professional learning communities on all campuses to help teachers share strategies to improve learning recovery, but students remain behind in most grades and subjects.

“We’ve tried very hard and worked very hard at this, but have a lot of work to do,” Gainey said. “It’s going to take some time.”

Gainey also highlighted the need for sustained funding for technology, noting appropriations from the General Assembly have declined from $646,583 in 2009-10 to $415,508 in the current fiscal year.

Randolph schools took a phased approach to replacing the district’s 17,798 Chromebooks, he said, but the replacement costs and 22 technology subscriptions that run about $597,000 a year requires more recurring funding.

“It’s not the initial purchase, it’s the refresh down the road,” Gainey said, adding it’s not feasible to reverse course. “There’s a lot of pieces to this … beyond the resource.”

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