Enough to Go Around? Budget and TCO Tool Kit

The Changing Financial Landscape

The past four years have seen a precipitous decline in funding for school technology programs. According to Quality Education Data, spending on instructional technology peaked at $8.36 billion in the 1998-99 school year, falling by more than half a billion dollars each year for the next four years to $5.74 billion. This represents a spending decline of more than 32 percent.

Due to the increasing gap between revenues and costs, a number of states, including Wisconsin and California, were forced to severely reduce or fully cut instructional technology grants to local school districts. In turn, districts canceled systems upgrades, reduced staffing, cut training programs, stretched replacement cycles, and trimmed similar "nonessentials".

The good news is there are signs that the trend in decreased spending on instructional technology is beginning to subside. QED estimates that spending will turn upwards again to $5.8 billion by the end of the 2003-04 school year, a very modest increase of $60 million over 2002-03. The International Data Corporation confirms this projection. IDC analysts believe that while containing technology costs will continue to remain a top priority, there will also be small growth in the overall education technology market for the first time in several years.

Nevertheless, it is clear that districts will not soon be returning to their bountiful days of the late nineties. Coupled with the decline in spending in the last four years is the increased and mounting level of accountability demanded by No Child Left Behind. As a result, districts will need to maintain financial restraint while learning to squeeze the greatest educational impact out of their technology investments.

Enter the TCO Model

When schools are forced to restructure technology initiatives due to unanticipated costs, it is a sure indicator that their planning was not comprehensive. Specifically, the Total Cost of Ownership was not adequately forecast.

The TCO for technology is the life cycle of costs for technology, including both direct and indirect expenses. They include costs around capital (hardware, software, and facilities), administration and operation (planning, upgrade, replacement, and technical support), and end user operation (staff development and user downtime).

Appropriate TCO planning provides the advantages of reducing network downtime, improving integration of technology resources into curriculum and instruction, and allowing teaching staff to focus on instruction rather than technical support. By identifying, planning, and managing TCO for technology, schools and districts can maximize their investments in this area.

Key TCO Challenges for Leaders

Thinking smart about school- and district-level technology TCO means considering a range of factors, including many that, at first, may not seem directly tied to budget considerations. Experienced school technology planners name the following challenges.

  • Offering Compelling Evidence that Technology Works
    Due to technology's incredible complexity and accelerating rate of change, it is unusually difficult to measure its full value, even under ideal circumstances. Yet educational policy makers are demanding that technology investments have clear and direct links to schools' efforts to improve student achievement. Leaders must offer policy makers compelling evidence that their information technology investments are closely planned, managed, and evaluated.
  • Building in a Strong Management System
    All too often, even schools and districts with well-conceived technology plans that include funding for all aspects of TCO still fail to reach optimum success because management is poor.
    Public and commercial pressures for innovation push organizations to continue to add and learn the latest technology. But schools are unique. Their management structures are not designed to keep pace with such rapid changes. For starters, they don't have a direct financial incentive to push a timely and more efficient management of technology and lack the flexibility to facilitate the timely transfer of internal funding for the optimal level of investment.
    In a short, the following remain the most common roadblocks to good school and district management:
    Inadequate training of instructional, administrative, and technical staffInsufficient technical expertiseLittle asset inventory or managementProliferation of operating systems and desktop imagesUse of one-time funding sources to invest in new technology.
  • Staying Focused on a Core Vision
    While we strive to do more with less, the management challenges of technology lead us in the direction of less is more. The most effective strategy for responding to the management challenge is to stay focused on the core of your vision. Don't attempt to do everything. But, when you do choose a focus, be certain you implement it extraordinarily well. Say no to requests for new technologies if you do not have capacity to provide the highest quality technical support and training. Anything more is a waste of resources.