During this past session, I introduced a bill (HB2286), which is intended to address the current “digital divide” in our K-12 public school systems.
The “digital divide” refers to the ever- widening gap in access, use and knowledge of information and communication technology that exists between the typical middle class student and students living in poverty. This gap is nationwide, and it is very visible here in Fairfax County. You may know that last year Fairfax County Public Schools implemented several “electronic textbook” model programs without fully researching: (1) the computer and broadband access students would need to able to effectively use the electronic textbooks; and (2) ensuring that the access students actually had was compatible with those electronic texts. The model program was not a success at Glasgow Middle School. The school had to print out so many textbooks that they ran out of paper at one point. Upset parents and teachers alerted me to the issue. We do not know how much learning time and money was wasted, nor do we understand the full impact on students who were repeatedly embarrassed by their family circumstances during the school year.
Fortunately, my bill was referred to the Joint Commission on Technology and Science (JCOTS), which has formed a Broadband and Education Advisory Committee to review and study the issue. I have been appointed to that committee and was asked to recommend individuals who could contribute to the discussions based on their practical experience. I suggested former Fairfax County School Board Member Tina Hone and FCPS technology teacher Eric Hardman. I am pleased that they are both now members of the committee.
HB2286 requires that if a local school board purchases an electronic textbook, that the school board must provide the electronic textbook to each student free of charge. Further, the bill makes clear that each student to whom electronic textbooks have been supplied must have adequate access to that textbook to be able to use it as part of the normal curriculum. The term, electronic textbooks, includes printed texts with supplemental electronic files as well as texts that are solely in electronic form . The way in which an e-text is provided is up to the local school board. The state is not requiring a particular computer purchase nor a particular type of connectivity. For many years, local school systems were mandated each year to report the level of broadband connectivity of that division, the level of computer ownership and access to broadband services for each student. These reports were important inputs to decisions made by the Department of Education, State Board of Education and the state IT staff. Unfortunately, the current Governor made this report voluntary at the beginning of his term. The percentage of systems reporting dropped from 91% to less than a quarter of Virginia’s school systems. HB2286 re-instates the mandate for the report. The State Board of Education would be required to summarize the data and report to the General Assembly. Finally, my bill allows school systems to expand the grade level of students using e-texts to cover all grades (K–12).
I know that this column may seem to be overly detailed, but because Virgina is a Dillon-Rule state (i.e. if the Virginia Code does not specify an action or power, it is not allowed), it is critical to have very specific language to ensure the desired outcome, without unintended consequences or alternate interpretations.
This Advisory Committee will meet in Richmond at least three times before the next session begins Our first meeting will be held on June 4.
I will keep you informed of the Committee’s work and welcome your comments and suggestions.