Since the shift to remote learning in spring 2020, schools in the U.S. have received billions of dollars in combined donations and gifts from private companies and individuals. Verizon has committed over $3 billion to help schools pay for technology, hoping “to leave no student behind.” Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, gave $10 million to a single school district in California, aimed at closing digital disparities. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
These one-time gifts from billionaires and multinational corporations are welcomed by most schools, but they are not enough to close gaps in access to learning technologies nor ultimately a sustainable financing solution for technology infrastructure.
The pandemic will eventually subside and those dollars will likely be funneled elsewhere. So what will schools do when their now-new laptops wear out in a few years? Or their networks need an upgrade? Or their latest crop of teachers needs training?
That schools rely on the mega-rich to fund their digital learning at all—and that those funds could dry up at any time—illustrates some of the fundamental problems with K-12 technology spending: It is inconsistent, pieced together haphazardly, and as a result impacts student technology access in disproportionate ways.
More than Devices
The “digital divide” was not quite a household term two years ago. And while the pandemic has pushed it into the mainstream, there are still misconceptions around it. Namely, many people think access to technology simply boils down to whether students have a working device and a reliable internet connection. But the needs—and the costs—are more complicated than that.
K-12 school districts must plan for a variety of costs related to technology integration. Education technology experts and policymakers at the federal and state level regularly call for technology plans to include sustainable funding streams to provide the groundwork, such as hardware, software and high-speed internet access, as well as the supports that enable technology to actually improve the learning experience, such as staffing (e.g. technicians, programmers and technology coaches), network infrastructure, maintenance and—importantly—teacher training on how to effectively use all that new technology.
But how do schools pay for all of this?
Schools receive most of their funds from state and local sources, with little help from the federal government. This reliance on local funds is especially true for technology funding, and because school districts vary significantly in their capacity to cover technology costs, districts must piece together funding from multiple sources that often still fall short of their needs. That’s usually when the “optional” add-ons—such as teacher training and technology coaches, which should really be viewed as core costs—get trimmed away.
Though the federal government does not systematically fund technology in schools, there is a mix of federal and state grant money available for technology-enabled learning. Funds are available through the Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA), Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), E-rate program, and federal COVID relief funds like the CARES Act. However, schools are limited in how they can spend this money and often have to make tough decisions about priorities.
School districts cannot use more than 15 percent of ESSA funds to support technology, and E-rate discounts on internet purchases can vary from 20 to 90 percent and are only used for internet access. Meanwhile, IDEA funding is unlikely to help, as schools already struggle to fund special education services. Federal relief funds from the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan are limited-time options that cannot meet the full range of technology needs long-term and must also be used to ensure a safe return to in-person school amid an ongoing pandemic.
With these constraints in mind, federal support is insufficient for any school to meaningfully invest in and maintain a comprehensive technology program.
States vary drastically in the funds they make available for K-12 technology. Only 21 states have any kind of dedicated state funding for technology, and this can range from just digital instructional materials (e.g. software and electronic textbooks, as is the case in New Mexico) to physical devices (e.g. laptops and tablets, as is true in Maine) according to a recent analysis from the State Educational Technology Directors Association.
Several states have allocated funds or technology-specific grants to enhance internet access for K-12 students, including Utah, Washington and Maine, though some of these programs are still quite limited in terms of funding and resources.
Due to lack of federal and state funds for technology in schools, research suggests that most U.S. states rely on local revenue sources to fund technology in K-12 public schools. This dependence can present major risks and drawbacks because of the well-documented disparities in local funding across districts and states. Within a single county in California, one school district may be spending $22,000 per student, while another just miles down the road spends only $14,000—or about 36 percent less.
Districts manage to get by in spite of these funding shortages by using a variety of strategies, including bond initiatives, creative budgeting, fundraising and bring-your-own-device policies to pay for or supplement technology needs.
However, bond initiatives are problematic for a number of reasons. Districts may go into debt to pay for devices that will become obsolete in a few years, reducing returns on investment and limiting how much schools can spend on new buildings and other long-term investments. Critics also point out that poorly funded school districts are more likely to go into debt to fund technology compared to better-resourced districts, compounding previous inequalities. Meanwhile, the effectiveness of creative budgeting or planning for technology in regular operating budgets is hard to assess because public education does not have a transparent way for reporting or comparing technology spending across districts on tools such as Ed Data.
Problems with Alternative Funding Sources
Philanthropic gifts, fundraising and partnerships between school districts and corporations are common methods for addressing funding shortages for technology. But these options, too, come with a catch.
Companies like Apple, Microsoft and Google regularly supply schools with discounted technology that districts could not otherwise afford themselves. As a result, edtech scholars and educators express concern about growing corporate influence in the public-school sphere.
Of the major technology companies, Google is increasingly dominating educational technology markets in K-12 schools. More than half of all K-12 students in the U.S. use Google products and services for daily school functions, with Chromebooks accounting for a majority of all K-12 device purchases. Because Google’s profits come primarily from online advertising revenue rather than the actual devices and services provided, there are concerns about the use of children’s data and privacy rights in the edtech market.
Other private actors have shown significant interest in educational technology, presumably because of the potential for large-scale profit. In 2020 alone, venture capital firms invested $2.2 billion in educational technology startups, a marked increase from the previous year.
Critics worry that the future of K-12 education involves corporations reforming public education without oversight, where one company may have a great deal of power in influencing what schools teach, the digital resources they use and general philosophies of learning.
Schools and districts are forced to haphazardly fund technology-enabled learning because of failures to do so in a consistent way at the federal and state level. The National Educational Technology Plan, created by the U.S. Department of Education in 2017, recommends districts make sure students have equitable access to technology through an unspecified mix of federal programs and reliance on nonprofit organizations. But this inconsistent approach to funding will not meet the estimated $6 billion to $11 billion needed to provide enough devices and internet access for students during remote learning, nor will it continue to sustain technology-enabled learning in a post-pandemic reality. That’s not to mention the funding shortfalls for teacher professional development around technology use, which many advocates say is key in connecting digital learning to better student outcomes.
It would be inaccurate to say that the way we fund technology in K-12 schools is broken, because it was never whole to start. But in this particular moment, as students and educators begin a new school year flush with more technology than ever before, we have an opportunity to develop a better way forward. Policymakers and school leaders can work together to ensure our students have what they deserve for a 21st century education.