Article IX Section 1(a)The general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people, the general assembly shall establish and maintain free public schools for the gratuitous instruction of all persons of this state…”

We have referenced this quote from the Missouri Constitution many times on MEW, but have focused primarily on the first part of the text regarding the purpose of public education. Today we will focus on the second part which describes what the state is obligated to provide.

The state is obligated to provide free public schools. Obviously they aren’t truly “free”, but the state, through its taxation authority and the authority it grants to political subdivisions like school districts to tax, must provide schools that do not charge individual families to attend. Unlike Indiana’s constitution which only prohibits tuition charges and leaves open the loophole of education fees, Missouri’s constitution says all of the education must be gratis. Thus, whether you have zero or eight children, you pay the same amount in taxes to pay for your local public school. That money is to be used to provide gratuitous instruction, meaning “given or done free of charge.”

The practice of charging for tools necessary to deliver that education has been around for a while but has been relatively rare in public K-12 schools. Some school districts require students to purchase books, but such practices have loopholes like allowing families to purchase one book that can be shared among siblings, or allowing families to find used copies of the required book to help minimize the cost impact. Such requirements often only exist for a single year, or a single book. Either way, there is still a reasonable question as to whether such practices are legal according to Missouri’s constitution.

As we enter the digital age, however, more and more schools are succumbing to Google’s largess in donating or offering quantity discounts for Chromebooks. The maintenance of these devices necessitates some sort of hardware insurance. Parents will be seeing their school’s technology policies coming home soon and are finding that they are being asked to fork over annually between $25-75 per child (since each child is now assigned a device) for breakage, theft or loss insurance. To the extent that the district integrates these devices into their daily instructional plans, their use is no longer a nice added benefit of the district but, instead becomes integral to the delivery of that gratuitous instruction guaranteed by our state constitution.

Parkway School district is one of many across this state and around the country who are instituting technology programs. They are providing every child in their six middle schools with a Google Chromebook under their ALT Project.  These devices are embedded in classroom instruction. From their policy manual:

The ALT Project Chromebook is required to provide an equitable classroom experience.​

Choosing to supply your  own device is not necessarily an option. In the Parkway middle school technology policy they indicate that allowing you to supply your own device will be up to the discretion of the IT department and warn parents that using  your own device will limit your child in school.

Please understand that personally owned devices will not have the same level of access or support resources as ALT Chromebooks.

That removes the loopholes that families can access for books, such as searching for a cheaper option, or supplying something they already own.

In addition, if parents do happen to get approval from IT to supply their own laptop or tablet, they might be required to load certain software onto that device, such as GoGuardian, which makes operation of that device on the internet discoverable by the school. And for school supplied devices which already have this software loaded, the school claims the right to know what surfing that device has been doing regardless of where it is being used. Again from Parkway’s policy manual:

“Website monitoring and content filtering is enabled whenever the device is connected to the internet, both on and off the Parkway network.

Plus it is possible that your child might be required to share his personal device, at the teacher’s discretion, if another student’s device is not available for a variety of reasons. Your (expensive) personal property could be commandeered by the school. Imagine your child being told they have to drive another student home in your car because the bus isn’t working today.

Your child’s privacy? Forgettaboutit. We already know that Google collects a lot of data from children’s device use. This warning should just be plastered above the front door of any school today, but Parkway makes this explicit statement about your child’s right to privacy when using school devices:

“There is ​NO EXPECTATION OF PRIVACY​ for any browsing, communications, or work done using Parkway resources, including any and all work done using the ALT Chromebook or any other devices utilizing the Parkway network.”

Note the extensive care and handling required for theses devices, as opposed to, say, a protactor or textbook.

Caring for your ALT Chromebook
  • Students are responsible for the general care of the Chromebook they have been issued by the school. Chromebooks that are broken or fail to work properly must be taken to the designated area in the school.
  • No food or drink is allowed next to the Chromebook while it is in use.
  • Cords, cables, and removable storage must be inserted carefully into the Chromebook.
  • Students should never carry their Chromebooks while the screen is open.
  • Chromebooks should be shut down or put in standby when not in use for an extended period of time to conserve battery life.
  • Chromebooks must remain free of any writing, drawing, or stickers.
  • Chromebooks must never be left in an unattended vehicle or any unsupervised area.
  • Students are responsible for keeping their Chromebook battery charged for school each day.

Carrying Chromebooks

  • The protective case provided with the Chromebook is intended to provide basic protection from normal treatment and provide a suitable means for carrying the computer. The guidelines below should be followed:
  • Chromebooks should always be within the protective case when carried.
  • Some carrying cases can hold other objects (such a folders and papers), but these must be kept to a minimum to avoid placing too much pressure and weight on the Chromebook screen.

Screen Care

    • The Chromebook screens can be damaged if subjected to rough treatment. The screens are particularly sensitive to damage from excessive pressure on the screen.
    • Do not lean on the top of the Chromebook when it is closed.
    • Do not place anything near the Chromebook that could put pressure on the screen.
    • Do not place anything in the carrying case that will press against the cover.
    • Do not poke the screen.

And for all of this intrusion and addition responsibility, parents have to pay for device insurance. That shouldn’t be the case, constitutionally speaking. Requiring parents to pay for that insurance is a violation of the state’s promise to provide free public schools and gratuitous instruction. 

It is not enough to let some parents off the hook if they cannot afford the insurance. If having the devices is an issue of equity, then so is paying for their insurance. Schools don’t ask kids to pay for Smartboard insurance even though that technology has the same breakdown and damage issues as tablets. You don’t have to pay for insurance for your desk or chair. Either the district must come up with the money to pay for the devices, or the state should since it is state’s pressure to have all these devices to deliver the mandated assessments.

And if the districts want to make the case that the devices are necessary to deliver improved education, they should take a few moments to read this thirteen year study which found “no gain in student test results associated with Internet connectivity.” The report sites numerous studies which found a null impact or negative impact on student test scores from technology use in general.

Expensive, touchy devices in the hands of middle schoolers, that require daily charging and transport to and from school, which allow the school to see everywhere your child goes on the internet, even if they are at home, which haven’t proven to improve student test scores, and for all this parents get to pay extra money to the school. On top of all those “positives”, the requirement to purchase device insurance violates the state’s constitutional promise to provide free public schools for the gratuitous instruction of all. Is that a law suit I hear being filed?

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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