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Legal Opinion - Mandatory Computer Purchase - 2000

Date:   June 7, 2000
Prepared By:   Michael H. Olenick
Phone:   (850) 488-7707
Suncom:   278-7707
Opinion No.:   00-04
Staff Contact:   None
MEMORANDUM OPINION
TO:   Karen O. Gaffney, P.A., School Board Attorney
FROM: Michael H. Olenick
SUBJECT: Legal Opinion--Mandatory Computer Purchase
RE: Letter of April 25, 2000

QUESTIONS PRESENTED: May a school board require students/parents to purchase or lease a computer and related technology?

CONCLUSION: Just as school boards may not require parents of enrolled students to purchase textbooks, it is our opinion based on the analysis above that a school board may not require parents to purchase computer technology, hardware or software, for instruction in the core curriculum. School boards may make available computer technology to parents and students who wish to purchase it on a voluntary basis. We decline to address the specific issue of a "voluntary plan" to integrate computer technology into the core curriculum at this time, as details of such a plan have not been provided. However, we do agree with the thrust of your statement that such a plan could be problematic if students who are unable to acquire or obtain access to the technology are negatively impacted to the extent that they are not otherwise provided the opportunity to learn basic computer skills necessarily embedded in such academic exercises.

DISCUSSION: The Hernando County School Board is currently considering whether to require parents of students enrolled in the school district to purchase or lease computers and related technology, including various software packages. The computers, whether desktop or laptop, would be used by each student for instruction in the core curriculum. As such, the software might include digital versions of textbooks and workbooks. They would be used by students to complete and "hand in" homework assignments, in some cases substituting altogether for hard copy. Additionally, the computers would be used to maintain the student's grades and communications between the faculty and students and parents.

Through our discussions with various school district personnel around the state, we have learned that the deliberations in Hernando County concerning this issue are not unique. Many superintendents and school boards are trying to come to terms with the best way in which to infuse and incorporate computer technology into the curriculum in a way which will be most advantageous and meaningful to students, thus better preparing them for the future. Such a farsighted approach is commendable.

Because of the expense and the anticipated dedication of any computer to a single student, or at most to a single family, other districts are also considering "requiring" parents to purchase or lease the necessary technology. In our discussions with various school districts, we have often heard that requiring such a purchase or lease is similar to requiring parents to purchase or lease other kinds of equipment, such as band instruments. However, this analogy does not apply.

Classes or activities such as band are and always have been considered "extracurricular." Extracurricular activities are not part of the core curriculum, which at the secondary level includes English, mathematics, history, social studies and science or other classes which may be specifically required in middle school or for high school graduation. While band may be used to satisfy elective requirements in middle school and elective and graduation requirements in high school, it is not a required part of the curriculum, as the credit achieved may be obtained by successfully completing other types of classes. Hence, the purchase or lease of an instrument is not necessary in order to fulfill the requirements. But this is not the case, if the purchase or lease of computer technology by parents is required for instruction in the core curriculum.

Section 1, Article IX of the Constitution of the State of Florida provides in pertinent part:

Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education . . . . [Emphasis supplied.]

Section 228.041, Florida Statutes specifically addresses the funding of free public schools and does not include mandatory fees for the core curriculum, except in cases of tuition fees charged nonresidents or of lost or damaged materials. See, Sections 228.121 and 233.46(2), Florida Statutes. To require students' parents to purchase computers for instruction in the core curriculum is the equivalent of requiring parents to furnish textbooks. Such a requirement would be contrary to the state constitution and express legislative intent.

The Legislature has addressed the computer technology issue in a number of ways. For instance, it has specifically defined the term "instructional materials." See, 233.07(4), Florida Statutes. However, we are of the opinion that this definition merely obviates the necessity of a school district to provide a computer to each student and that the language does not require parents to furnish computer technology at all.

This position is further supported by other legislative pronouncements. These include Section 229.603, Florida Statutes, the "Instructional Technology Grant Program" administered by the Commissioner of Education, and Section 236.092, Florida Statutes, relating to the funding of mathematics, science, and computer learning laboratories in kindergarten through grade 12. Further, Section 230.23005, Florida Statutes, provides supplemental powers and duties of school boards. Included at subsection (3) is the provision that school boards

may adopt policies providing for innovative teaching techniques, teaching programs and methods, instructional aids and objectives, extracurricular and interscholastic activities, and supplemental programs including, but not limited to, providing for:
(a) Use of [computer] technology, including appropriate use of the Internet as a tool for learning. [Parenthetical supplied; emphasis provided.]

Hence, the Legislature has acknowledged that it is important that students become familiar with and become more adept at the use of computer technology. However, because of the rapid development in technological advances and the expense associated with acquiring the ever new technology, we are of the opinion that the Legislature has indicated a preference of exposing students to computer technology through the laboratory model, rather than by requiring either the school districts or parents to furnish a computer to each student, as the use of computer technology is still considered an instructional aid and objective, an extracurricular and interscholastic activity, and a supplemental program.

That is not to say that school districts may not make such technology available to students on a voluntary basis. Even the Instructional Technology Grant Program contemplates "private sector contributions." See, Section 229.603(2), Florida Statutes. Further, the Department of Education is authorized to assist in the acquisition of computer technology by entering into agreements with vendors of computer hardware and software for the benefit of school districts and others, including parents and students, which permit the purchase of the equipment under "favorable terms." See, Section 229.8041, Florida Statutes. Additionally, principals are authorized to sell to parents or students instructional materials used in the school, including computer courseware or software, under regulations prescribed by the school board. Section 233.46(3), Florida Statutes. Therefore, we are in basic agreement with your statement that "the voluntary purchase of such equipment does not pose a problem unless and to the extent that those that are unable
to . . . acquire the equipment are negatively impacted." However, as you have not indicated the details of any "voluntary plan" to integrate computer technology into the core curriculum, we decline to address this issue further at this time.


If you have additional questions, please advise.

Sincerely,

Michael H. Olenick


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