Proposed School Budget Hike Includes Unprecedented iPad Program

Are county residents ready to fund an iPad for every student in Knox schools?

The topic of the morning in Dexter Murphy's fifth grade class at Pond Gap Elementary School is recognizing the difference between facts and inferences. On a big computer screen, he displays an article about prairie dogs accompanied by four short statements—two of which are drawn directly from the text and two of which draw conclusions from it.

As he asks his students to categorize them, the same display pops up on iPad screens on each of their desks that are linked to his. To enter her responses, Cailee Patterson deftly manipulates her keyboard—a skill that Murphy taught her when each fifth-grader at Pond Gap was furnished with an iPad at the beginning of this school year. "At most schools, you sit there and use books. I think it's a lot more interesting to use computers," Patterson says.

Pond Gap's principal, Susan Espiritu, is convinced that the many iPad applications now in use have made her students more engaged and are enhancing their performance. "I just got the writing results back [on a state assessment for fifth-graders], and we had the best results in 11 years," she says.

If School Superintendent Jim McIntyre has his way, what started as a pilot at Pond Gap and two other schools this year will be extended to every student in all 87 of Knox County's public schools by 2015. That means procuring some 56,000 iPads or similar devices and installing a robust wireless network and other infrastructure in every classroom in the county. With a multitude of instructional apps to choose from, teachers would have some leeway in picking the ones that work best for them.

McIntyre places the total cost of the instructional technology initiative at upwards of $25 million, and it's a big component of the $35 million per year budget increase for the next five years that McIntyre is seeking, especially in years two and three. After a year of planning and preparation, the roll-out would start with coverage of all high schools in 2013 and extend to middle and elementary schools the following year.

This ambitious undertaking would make Knox County the first school system of anything like its size anywhere in the country to put a computer in every student's hands for instructional use. The only other system that even comes close, as far as local school officials are aware, is in Mooresville, N.C., which has 5,500 students and has furnished laptops to all fourth through 12th graders since 2009. (A school district in McAllen, Texas recently announced plans to start distributing iPads to all 25,000 of its students next school year.)

According to a recent article in The New York Times, Mooresville's superintendant, Mark Edwards, credits computer-based instruction with making a major contribution to student achievement gains. The Times reports that, "The district's graduation rate was 91 percent in 2011, up from 80 percent in 2008. On state tests in reading, math and science, an average of 88 percent of students across grades and subjects met proficiency standards, compared with 73 percent three years ago. Attendance is up, dropouts are down."

Still, the very fact that Knox schools are proposing to venture where no other major school system has gone before dramatizes the enormity of the challenge. In addition to the pilot at Pond Gap, the implementation effort can also draw upon this year's experience at the new L&N STEM Academy, where instructional technology is pervasive. But at a recent school board meeting, its principal, Becky Ashe, stressed that, "I'm glad to see there's a whole year set aside for planning because what we've learned is how critical it is to have a strategic roll-out... All of this works because we have robust and reliable infrastructure, and training for the teachers is critical."

McIntyre, for his part, says, "We've got to make sure we do it right with fidelity. Making sure the training and support are there and that our teachers know how to use it is incredibly important because if you don't get that right, it's not going to be effective." When asked if he's confident the county will get a return on its huge investment, he says, "I am, from two perspectives. One is enhancing instruction and the other is making sure our kids have the knowledge, skills, and experience they need for life."

Whether McIntyre gets the $25 million for instructional technology in the extra funds he's seeking remains to be determined. County Mayor Tim Burchett has vowed to veto the property tax increase it would take to fund the extra $35 million atop the school system's $397 million base budget that's funded from existing revenue streams. So it would take a supermajority of seven votes on Knox County's 11-member County Commission to override the mayor's veto. But Burchett did allow for the possibility of a tax increase that's approved by the voters in a referendum, which would almost have to take the form of raising Knox County's 2.25 percent sales tax.

A unanimous endorsement from the board of directors of the Chamber of Commerce and the backing of parent-teacher organizations are by no means the only manifestations of school funding support, tax increase and all. At a County Commission school budget hearing last week, Commissioner Mike Brown reported that, "Right now the overwhelming majority of people speaking up are for the education package. More people are interested in this than at any time I can remember." What makes Brown's observation all the more noteworthy is that his South Knox district has long been perceived to be one of the most tax-averse in the county.

There's yet another reason why computers are going to be needed in every classroom. Starting in 2015, the state's annual achievement test known as TCAP, which students now take on paper, is due to be conducted online. So technology is coming to Tennessee schools whether civic administrators like Tim Burchett are ready for it or not.