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O.C. School Laptop Decree Draws Flak

Times Staff Writer

An Orange County school district’s efforts to integrate technology into students’ lives by urging families to purchase laptop computers is creating a furor among parents who say the pricey obligation is segregating their children into the haves and have-nots.

Nearly 2,000 of the Fullerton School District’s 13,000 elementary and middle-school students carry laptops between class and home as part of a year-old pilot program that expanded this year to four of the district’s 20 schools. It is one of the largest such efforts in the state.

But some parents, already bristling at the tab of public education -- from classroom supplies to sports uniforms -- are incensed by the need for $1,500 laptop computers.

“That’s not pocket change for anybody,” said Tina Maldonado, a stay-at-home mother with two children attending Rolling Hills Elementary School. “We could buy the computers, but I don’t think we should have to. A public school education is supposed to be free.”

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Required laptops first appeared at universities, then filtered down to private schools in the 1990s. Over the last decade, such mandates have emerged at public schools nationwide, sometimes with school districts or state governments picking up the tab. Because California and many of its school districts can’t afford to furnish laptops, the requirement is rare in the state.

Efforts similar to Fullerton’s in recent years have raised similar objections. Del Mar, for instance, nixed its laptop program because of resistance from parents over the cost.

The American Civil Liberties Union said this month that it’s considering filing a lawsuit against the Fullerton School District, arguing that it is violating the state’s constitutional guarantee to provide a free education, and is creating a two-tiered learning environment.

“Some children are getting access to this program and some aren’t, and it seems to depend on whether parents are willing or able to pay the fee or get a waiver,” said Hector Villagra, director of the organization’s Orange County office. “That’s unconstitutional.”

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The Fullerton district contracted with Apple to purchase the laptops, software and insurance. Parents can pay the nearly $1,500 tab at once, or over three years with monthly installments of about $50. Financial aid and loaner laptops are available to families with demonstrable needs.

School officials say that all Fullerton students receive the free education guaranteed to them by the state constitution and call the laptops an optional “enrichment.”

No child is denied a laptop if the family can’t afford one, said Supt. Cameron McCune. But McCune has also been confronted by families who can afford a laptop but choose not to buy one. Their children, he said, can transfer to classrooms not in the laptop pilot program -- and that may require transferring to a different school.

In proposing the program, McCune said, he knew he was inviting controversy: “I’m willing to take some appropriate risks for the right reasons. If these kids are going to compete globally, they need to have the tools.”

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At the Robert C. Fisler School, laptops are used 60% of the day: eighth-graders use them to draw atom structures, second-graders craft story outlines about a turkey trying to avoid being eaten on Thanksgiving, and fourth-graders create charts from a playground survey that included asking classmates their favorite animal. (Dogs were the clear winner.)

“I love laptops in the classroom,” said Gigi Kelley, a third-grade teacher at Fisler. “It has really inspired the kids and me to go different places.”

Luz Howchin, mother of two students at the science- and technology-focused school, said the laptops have motivated her daughters to learn. Last year, her fourth-grader wrote a story, “Alien Friends,” and used software to turn it into a picture book.

“She put a UPC code on the back, and a synopsis about the author inside the book,” Howchin said. “They really got creative. They were so proud it was their book, and they did go above and beyond what was expected.”

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There is debate among educators about the value of such programs. An evaluation by UC Irvine education professors lauded the Fullerton program for engaging students, helping them become computer literate and improving writing skills.

But other researchers say there is no evidence that equipping students with laptops improves grades or test scores.

“If the reason to roll out this ... program is that laptops in the hands of every single student will improve teaching and learning, it is silly,” said Stanford University education professor emeritus Larry Cuban, author of “Teachers and Machines: Classroom Use of Technology Since 1920.” “No body of evidence supports that.”

The ACLU argues that the district favors wealthier families and stigmatizes those who apply for a loaner laptop, for a fee waiver or for a transfer to another school.

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“This program really is beyond the pale,” Villagra said.

Sandra Dingess said that she and her husband couldn’t afford laptops for their four children who attend Fisler, but were wary of disclosing private financial details in filling out the required paperwork. Instead, they negotiated a deal with the district: Their eighth-grader will stay at Fisler and borrow a laptop while the three others transferred to schools where laptops aren’t used.

“Changing schools was very difficult,” Dingess said. “We’re an average family, not rich, but not destitute by any means.... We moved into an excellent school district knowing it was a public school system, and public schools are free.”


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