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Education activists cry foul over technology fees in North Carolina public schools

EducationWhen school board members in Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools (ECPPS), a rural district in northeastern North Carolina, quietly approved a new policy governing the use of mobile devices in schools, the vote came and went with little attention.

That’s something Adam Swain, a local businessman, education activist and school donor, hopes to change.

Swain told Policy Watch last week about the district’s so-called “technology insurance and maintenance mobile device user agreement,” which requires annual fees for students using the mobile technology—calculators, laptops, Chromebooks and tablets—commonly employed every day in North Carolina classrooms.

While the fee, to some, would be considered fairly low—$10 per student for grades 3-5; $20 per student for grades 6-12—Swain and other public education advocates say it’s policies like these that are setting a pay-for-access precedent in the state’s supposedly free public schools.

The agreement, which was unanimously approved by the local school board this month, allows for families to request a waiver based on “financial hardship” if they have more than one child in school. However, the policy’s wording indicates children must pay the fee or request a waiver before using a device.

Students who do not do so could be liable for paying the cost of replacement if the device is damaged, the agreement says.

School officials in Elizabeth City say other districts have approved similar fee plans, but advocates say it’s another sign of inadequate state funding for school supplies and classroom needs, a frequent complaint in North Carolina in recent years.

From Swain’s email to Policy Watch:

By diverting funds away from public schools, the state has created an environment in which our administrative bodies have had to seek out creative ways of financing the investment in classroom technology. My fear is that we’re stepping onto a slippery slope where we consider it the norm to charge for access to curriculum materials. Some districts are now charging $50. Where’s the limit? $100? $1,000?
While some may find the fees to be nominal, you have to understand that we live in a district where 63% of our students receive free or reduced lunch. Ultimately, there are going to be some families who are unable to pay either the fee or the cost of repairing damage to any device. Unfortunately, that’s the cost of providing a free public education to every child in the state of North Carolina. That burden shouldn’t fall on our students and their families. It’s our obligation as a community to ensure that right is guaranteed with no strings attached.

As Swain noted, the northeastern North Carolina school district serves a relatively poor student population.

District Superintendent Larry Cartner did not agree to interview requests from Policy Watch, but in an email, he said he does not believe students would be denied access by the plan, pointing to the policy’s options for fee waivers, payment plans and community sponsorship, whereby someone in the community could foot the student’s bill. “No one will be turned away for lack of funds,” said Cartner.

Despite Cartner’s defense, state education advocates say such policies may be a sign of the times in North Carolina.

“This is yet another example of legislative leaders and our governor not stepping up and providing our students the resources they need to be successful,” said Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, the state’s largest teacher lobbying organization.

“Students, parents, and educators continue to pay for the choices of some politicians to place tax cuts for the wealthy and big corporations ahead of classrooms,” said Jewell.

Swain adds that local districts like his face a larger battle with leadership in the N.C. General Assembly.

“Ultimately, the district isn’t receiving the required level of funding and support it needs, and the district has been forced to respond,” Swain said. “Personally, I think that’s a battle the district should be fighting with the state and the local governments, and not putting on the backs of our working families.”

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