Voters in November will decide whether the technology industry, which has played a central role in pushing the standards movement in U.S. education, will enjoy a $2 billion payday financed by New York taxpayers.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan, backed by the state Legislature, would let the state borrow $2 billion for technology for classrooms and high-tech security on public school campuses, as well as permanent classrooms for prekindergarten students and those now taught in temporary trailer classrooms.

It’s a use-it-or-lose-it proposition called the Smart Schools Bond Act. School districts already know how much they’ll get, with Yonkers to receive $23 million of the $90 million allocated for schools in Westchester, Putnam and Rockland counties.

The bond act would help bridge the digital divide between those Lower Hudson Valley schools serving children of the rich and poor. In Rockland’s East Ramapo district, none of the classrooms in its 14 schools are served by a wireless network. Setting up such a system would most likely consume most of the $6.1 million East Ramapo would get if the bond passes.

For wealthier districts, like Scarsdale, which has a robust wireless network throughout the district, its allocation will provide funding to burnish its state-of-the art technology system. The district currently provides Chromebook computers for every fourth- and fifth-grader. Each grade level has about 400 students.

E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center for New York State Policy, said the bond act — with its spend-now-or-kiss-it-goodbye philosophy — could lead to wasteful spending. Some of the investment, McMahon fears, could be used on technology that becomes obsolete before the bonds are paid off.

“You are pressing money on districts to buy stuff they may not need,” he said. “It’s free money for items that could be a low priority. It’s bound to be inefficient, and uses up the state’s scarce capital borrowing capacity.”

State Sen. David Carlucci, D-New City, said it’s up to voters to decide if they want the state to go into debt to finance the investment in technology.

“It’s another option of additional funding,” he said. “It’s a way to diversify our portfolio for how we fund education.”

Wish lists are already under review. It could be a good year for security camera salesmen.

“We have many cameras, but you find that you can always use more,” said North Rockland Assistant Superintendent Kris Felicello. “No matter how many cameras you have, there are always blind spots.”

Districts continue to scramble to keep pace with growing demands from the technology-driven education system. On the horizon are the Common Core’s statewide tests for grades three to eight which are scheduled to be given online in 2014. But school districts have resisted, telling state education officials they lacked the hardware and bandwidth to do so. Schools officials have been told they’ll need enough machines to test one grade level per building at a time.

In Mahopac, that means 125 devices at each elementary school.

“It’s a moving target — a robust infrastructure, more bandwidth and devices for the students,” said Tracey Shaffer, Mahopac’s director of educational technology. “It sounds like a lot — $3 million — but it will be swallowed up pretty quickly.”

A visit to schools in Yonkers and Scarsdale provided a glimpse at the tech chasm between rich and poor. In Scarsdale, fifth-graders in Trent DeBerry’s classroom gathered on a plush blue carpet before an interactive whiteboard. Each had a wireless Chromebook, the Google-developed device that costs about $250 each. The devices use Google’s Chrome browser but have no operating system for document storage. That’s all done in Google’s cloud storage system.

First DeBerry showed a brief video trailer about the book, “Wonder,” which explores the life of a kid who sticks out but wants to fit in. The video sparked engaging conversation among the students, who then used their devices to learn more about the book online.

“This is their world,” said DeBerry. “They are so intuitive about how to use the technology.”

In Yonkers, students at Lincoln’s Academy of Finance sat by hard-wired desktop computers facing the walls as they learned about how checks worked in the U.S. economic system. An online assessment would let the teacher know if they’d learned the material. It was among the best-equipped rooms in the school.

The 1,200-student high school has three laptop carts that move from classroom to classroom, but two of them have just 20 computers — not quite enough for classrooms that average 30 students. There’s another iPad cart with devices for 25.

Principal Ian Sherman said the school’s wireless network was installed a few years back with routers that lack the capacity to move data with much alacrity. Yonkers stands ready to put the bond act money to good use. Its students are waiting.

“Technology is second nature for this generation,” he said. “These kids are true digital natives.”

© 2014 The Journal News

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