Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Rural Schools Taskforce Hears School Technology Concerns

The Speaker’s Taskforce on Rural Schools held a public hearing in Madison on Tuesday to hear from several educational organizations, including WEMTA.

WEMTA Past President Sandra Heiden testified along with Kristy Bovre, Kris McCoy and  Michelle Byholm about the challenges facing library media specialists in rural communities. The group addressed concerns about limited resources, the “extinction” or scaling back of the position, inadequate access to broadband, and challenges with the certification process.  Michelle Byholm highlighted the fact that in rural communities there is often no public library, so the school library is the only library that rural students have access to,  making the Common School Fund incredibly important in these districts.

In response to the concerns raised about the certification process, Representative Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) asked how the process could be streamlined and argued that school librarians do not need to be licensed as teachers. He and Representative Ed Brooks (R-Reedsburg) said they would like the Taskforce to look at streamlining the certification process and reducing some of the credit requirements in order to get more specialists in the field.

Jerry Fiene of the Rural Schools Alliance recommended the creation of a new Technology for Educational Achievement program (TEACH 2) with some components directed to rural school districts. Fiene argued that TEACH 2 should be based on four pillars: statewide broadband access, block grants for rural schools to support technology, a state-led digital learning effort that receives state funding, and statewide professional development to all districts in the state.

John Forester of the School Administrators Alliance agreed with Fiene that Wisconsin should create a TEACH 2 program, saying that Wisconsin has fallen behind other states in terms of school technology since the original TEACH program went away. He also called on the state to show leadership on the issue of statewide broadband access.

State Superintendent Tony Evers told the Taskforce that rural schools are unable to take advantage of technology in the same way that urban and suburban school districts do because of a lack of affordable, high speed internet. Evers told the Taskforce that rural schools need affordable and adequate bandwidth to ensure that digital learning is happening.

WEMTA at the State Capitol 

Betsy Kippers and Ron Martin of the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) also addressed the challenges facing rural schools in the area of technology. Kippers said that scores of schools are going without specialists and there is not enough time or training to implement new technologies in rural schools. She advocated for better integrated technology in rural schools and described library media specialists as the “backbone of connecting students, teachers and the community.”

Other challenges facing rural schools that were addressed include: teacher retention and recruitment, transportation costs, challenges with the funding formula and referenda.

Representative Rob Swearingen (R-Rhinelander), the Taskforce’s chair, said he plans to hold three more hearings throughout the state. Swearingen hopes to release a final report by February and he said that recommendations for improving broadband access will likely be included in the report. 

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