Holy Cow--This is what you get when someone tells me to man an Information booth and no one has any questions--one of the longest posts I've ever written...
As I've mentioned in several of the last few posts and tweets I've made, I've spent this entire week in Louisville at the Kentucky Society for Technology in Education conference. While I was sitting in on a session today, something occurred to me that I've thought about often in the past, but never written about on this blog. It's a good news story, one that I think it's about time more Kentucky tax payers knew about, so I'm making it my mission tonight to write about it.
It's easy for people to knock "Big Government" and to complain about the many ways that government can waste your money. And from $500 hammers to "pork" spending stuck into health care legislation to Bridges to Nowhere, the government does supply plenty of easy targets. But in Kentucky, at least, there's one place where "big government" actually saves money, and that is in education technology spending.
When it comes to education technology spending, Kentucky does something that almost no other state in the union does: it standardizes on just a few models. Rather than the free for all that happens in most of the other states, the 174 school districts in Kentucky are REQUIRED by statute to purchase technology off of state approved bid lists. Thus, every school district in Kentucky that buys a computer buys either a Dell, HP, Lenovo, or Apple machine. You won't walk into (or at least, you SHOULDN'T walk into) a public school classroom anywhere in the state of Kentucky and find a Gateway computer or an eMachines computer. And more than that, we aren't just required to purchase from those makers--we're required to purchase specific models of products from those manufacturers.
At first blush, I guess, maybe that sounds like a BAD thing. This is America, after all, the land of the FREE! No one likes to be REQUIRED to do anything. It's unAmerican. And there are people out there who complain about the requirement. "Why should I pay state prices for that Dell computer," someone might ask, "when I can get this other Dell computer that looks just like it for $100 less at Wal-Mart?" And computers aren't even where the biggest price differential appears. In networking equipment, it's much worse. Someone who doesn't know much about computer networking (and I'll admit that I'm an educator first and a techy second, so I don't know a WHOLE lot about networking) might wonder why that 24 port switch (a device that you plug all of the computers in a building into to give them Internet access) on the state contract is $2,000 when there's a 24 port switch from another manufaturer online for $300. Is this another $500 hammer?
But there's more to this story than just the initial purchase price. Kentucky's usage of standardization has saved the Kentucky Department of Education, individual school districts, and ultimately, we Kentuckians, literally millions of dollars. Let me tell you how standardization is saving the state money:
1. The Purchase Price Savings. It may not seem like it with that network switch I described above (I'll get back to that in a moment), but standardizing allows the state to drive down costs. My school district has 2,300 students. We spend somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000 a year on desktop and laptop machines. That's quite a bit more than--say--the average individual consumer spends on computers, but in the grand scheme of things, we're a little fish in the sea. Dell or HP or Apple or Lenovo isn't very motivated to give us much of a break on prices for computers compared to say--Jefferson County Schools in Louisville--which has an enrollment of almost 100,000 and which spends I'm not sure how much on computers a year, probably something like seventy kajillion dollars. Dell and HP and Apple and Lenovo are VERY interested in making sure they provide the most competitive price to Jefferson County Schools.
But in Kentucky, it's not just Jefferson County Schools that get special treatment. By combining Jefferson County Schools with Fayette County Schools with Kenton County Schools with my school district and with every public school district in the state, Kentucky becomes a behemoth of a buyer, and those computer makers are VERY, VERY, VERY motivated to provide the lowest price possible. As a result, Kentucky often gets products that are just a few dollars above cost, and occasionally even below cost for the manufacturer who would rather lose a few dollars per machine on tens of thousands of sales rather than allow its competitor to make those sales.
2) The Reliability. But the purchase price isn't the only benefit of the state contract, and it isn't the only way that the state saves money. Another benefit of standardization is increased reliability. This comes about because the state has something which many school districts (including my own) do not--people who work there with the knowledge and expertise to understand the needs of enterprise level technology. This takes us back to that $300 switch I mentioned earlier. Paying $300 for a switch instead of $2,000 seems like a great idea...until that switch a) breaks because it's cheaply made or b) doesn't provide the speed necessary for teachers and students to do the things they need to do or c) can't be managed to allow district staff to do things like limit how much of the network is used for gaming or Facebook so that teachers and students can get out on the Internet to the sites where they're going to really learn something.
And that Dell computer at Wal-Mart might really be $100 cheaper than the similar looking Dell computer on the state contract, but has anyone considered that the state contract has a next day, onsite, 3 year warranty, whereas that Wal-Mart computer has a 90 day mail in warranty? And that Wal-Mart computer is consumer grade instead of commercial grade, made from bottom to top cover with flimsier parts than what are in that Kentucky education system?
I can speak to this one personally. Until about five years ago there was a state contract for ink jet printers. Everyone complained that ink jet printers had gotten so cheap that there really wasn't a need for a state contract anymore. Why pay $149 for a printer on the contract when there were printers being sold in department stores for $50? Heck, there were computer manufacturers GIVING printers away when a computer was purchased.
The state agreed, and released districts to purchase what they wanted. One school in my district decided that it was going to purchase a whole bunch of $50 HP printer/scanner/copiers. They all worked great..for about three months. And then I started getting complaints, almost every day and always at least once a week, that the printers stopped feeding paper. They ended up trashing the majority of them at the end of the year.
I'm not saying that the state SHOULDN'T have dropped printers from the state contract. They should have. They WERE too inexpensive to justify all of the added expense of testing the products on the state level. After all, there isn't a state price contract for pencils, either. Just too cheap to justify the expense of standardizing. All I'm saying is that during that two month time period when all of those printers died at once, I really wished someone at the state level had tested the printer and looked at the specs regarding monthly usage, ink capacity, and so on.
3) A Community of Users. The last really big positive with standardization, as I see it, I don't think was an intentional thing on the part of the state. I think it actually is a byproduct. But it's still pretty cool, and in the end it's another way to save money. Since everyone in the state has similar products in their school districts, we all share an understanding of the technology that we're each working with...because we're all working with pretty much the same technology. Because we live outside of my school district, my children go to a different district from where I work, and when I walk into a classroom in that district, I can tell you exactly how old the equipment in that room is. The same when I go to other districts in the state for trainings. That's a Dell Optiplex GX260, I'll say to myself. That thing is seven years old, and probably by now as slow as Christmas. If that thing is being used for anything other than word processing, the user is probably pretty frustrated.
And because we all use the same stuff, we are all a resource to each other. I belong to an email group and not a day goes by that someone doesn't post a question like, "Okay, I have an Enterasys switch as my core router, and I'm having an issue with it dropping packets mysteriously. Anyone have any idea why that's happening?" Within just a few minutes people from another district have emailed replies, and usually someone is able to help.
And we help in other ways as well. A few years ago one of my routers died (Routers are basically like traffic cops--they make sure than the information from the network gets sent to the right place. When you type in google.com, it's a router that makes sure that Google's homepage makes it to YOUR computer and not your neighbor's). It was an old router, a VERY old router, and it occurred to me that--since Kentucky has always had standards--there was probably a district nearby that had retired the exact same piece of equipment and would be willing to loan it to me. I sent out an email and in 30 minutes had gotten a reply from a district that was about 40 minutes away that it had five they would GIVE me if I'd come get them. I did so, and the school that was being serviced by the router ended up being down for a couple of hours rather than days.
It's a savings for the state in so many ways. It's really a big deal. So the next time you complain about government spending out of control, keep in mind that at least one part of the Kentucky Department of Education has gotten it right. The Office of Educational Technology has long been a good steward of the taxpayer's money.