A reader reminded us of this story from last week. As you may recall from the news, in the face of a nearly $700 million shortfall in the state government's budget, Democrats in the state House of Representatives were pushing for a $38 million spending increase for public schools to "promote educational technology", whatever that might mean. Fortunately, State Rep. Matt Gillard, Democrat from Alpena and the new chairman of the House subcommittee for K-12 spending, told us: An iPod for every student. For those behind the tech curve, an iPod is a hand-held electronic device that plays digitally recorded music. Allegedly it can also do things like displaying documents kids might use in their schoolwork.
Well, beyond denying children the pleasure of the aroma of freshly mimeographed hand-outs by electronically transmitting documents to them instead, there is the dubious prospect that iPods would be used for anything so useful as schoolwork. (Yes, I know laser copiers replaced mimeograph machines long ago. But my point stands.) After all, paper hand-outs can only be replaced by electronic transmission once every student in a class always has his or her iPod available. How often will that happen, especially in the zoos that pass for schools in many districts these days? Furthermore, the case has yet to be made that calculators, laptops, and iPods do anything to improve education over blackboards, chalk, pen, and paper.
In fact, it would seem obvious that buying an iPod for every student is such a dumb idea, especially during a severe budget crunch, one wonders why Gillard and his colleagues, House Speaker Andy Dillon, Democrat from Redford Township, and State Rep. Tim Melton, Democrat from Auburn Hills, were thumping for this expenditure. Well, folks, as it happened Apple Inc., the manufacturer of the iPod, gave Gillard, Dillon, and Melton a free trip out to its headquarters in California last month. Lo and behold, upon returning home to the Winter-Water-Wonderland, the three amigos suddenly thought an iPod for every K-12 public school student was a nifty idea.
So much for politicians having political savvy, because Gillard, Dillon, and Melton reaped the whirlwind of public disgust with such a transparent and venal quid-pro-quo. By the end of last week, Gillard axed the iPod proposal, and he and his comrades each reimbursed Apple $1,700 for the cost of the junket. (Hey, don't think the Democrats are the only ones with their hands out for corporate goodies. Apple paid over nine grand to entertain five Republican House members at its California headquarters a few years back when they were trying to get the contract to supply laptops to sixth graders. In the end the Republicans stiffed Apple and went with Hewlett-Packard instead.)
Mike Flanagan, the state superintendent for public schools, was dismayed by the debacle. He argued that the $38 million was an important expenditure, not to buy iPods but to get up and running the "21st Century Learning Environments" program. Hmm. Why is that not reassuring? At least the iPods would have been real hardware. A "learning environments" program sounds a lot like a toilet flushing, except that good money instead of a lot of crap disappears. So maybe we should thank Gillard, Dillon, and Melton for their poorly concealed horse-trading. It may have gone a long way to souring everyone on a $38 million expenditure that would have been a boondoggle however the money was spent to "promote educational technology".