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  1. Education

Top lawmakers to push for bigger spending on school technology

State House Speaker Will Weatherford interacts with Dayspring Academy students in their civics class Friday during a campus tour of the campus with state Sen. John Legg, who is also the school's co-founder. Weatherford toured the school's iMac lab and saw firsthand examples of how each student on campus has an iPad that is an integral part of their curriculum and classroom experience.
Published Feb. 1, 2014

PORT RICHEY — Two key Florida lawmakers on Friday applauded Gov. Rick Scott's proposal to spend $40 million on school technology improvements, but suggested the amount isn't nearly enough.

"I feel we will do significantly more than that," Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg said, setting a goal of closer to $100 million for fiscal year 2015 and a continuing revenue stream for the future.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, who joined Legg to announce legislation that aims to put more technology into students' hands, didn't commit to a specific amount, saying it's too early in the legislative process.

"The governor's number is a good place to start," Weatherford said. "But we can do better."

Florida has been on a path toward the digital classroom for several years but has had trouble finding the money to reach that goal.

Weatherford said he wanted to commit a hefty portion of the new funding to the state's lowest performing schools and those with the highest poverty levels.

Those campuses have the students who are least likely to have access to computers, smartphones, tablets and even the Internet, not to mention the educational materials that make them valuable in schools, Weatherford said.

The goal is to get students the skills they need to qualify for the jobs they will encounter. That end isn't achievable overnight, though, the lawmakers acknowledged. So they're aiming to jump-start the effort by calling for districts to create plans for what technology they would need and how they would use it, as well as train teachers.

The bill (SB 790) also proposes to dedicate annual state funding for new technology, with districts receiving no less than $100,000.

"We want to be sure that every district gets a piece," Legg said. "It is not going to take away from existing funds."

To demonstrate the importance of high-tech learning, Legg invited Weatherford and other guests to tour Dayspring Academy, the Pasco County charter school that he helped start more than a decade ago. This year, the charter's middle school grades began providing iPads in place of textbooks and have gone almost entirely paper-free.

Students and teachers said they appreciated the change.

"It improves the level of engagement," principal Sara Calleja said, also noting that discipline referrals have dropped and midyear student achievement is up.

Civics teacher Nitza Lord said students have responded well to using "cool" programs and applications while learning. The kids have more responsibility to research their topics, she said, "instead of you being up there going blah, blah, blah and half of them tuning out."

Eighth-grader Joel Ceruto said he's been able to abandon his "black hole" of a book bag. Having an iPad allows him to share materials, find his notes and books easily, and keep track of assignments.

"I love it a lot," he said.

Florida began talk of migrating its standardized testing to computers in 2007, and rolled out a five-year plan to have all students in kindergarten through high school using "electronic materials" in early 2011.

The money has not been available to make the desired move, though. State board members have proposed millions of dollars more for technology than has been approved in recent years.

The Legislature last year passed a measure to hold off on new computerized testing until all schools have the needed systems in place, something that has yet to happen.

The effort is critical, the two Pasco lawmakers stressed Friday.

"If you don't know how to interface with technology, you won't be employable in the United States of America in 20 years," Weatherford said. "It really is that big of a deal."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com.

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