Athletics or laptops?

In a recent comment, Bill Bradley said:

High School Footballphoto © 2007 Jamie Williams | more info (via: Wylio)I used to think that the cost [of student laptops] was ridiculous, until I looked at our district’s budget for athletics, and the unrecouped costs for that would have easily paid for new 1-to-1 laptops every single year, so a 4 or 5 year cycle would be trivial compared to what is spent on Athletics.

This post is not about knocking P-12 athletic programs. But budgets are pretty tight right now and any financial expenditure reflects decisions about priorities. So in the interest of fostering some conversation …

  1. How much money does your school district spend per year on athletics?
  2. How many student/teacher laptops (at, say, $1,400 apiece) would that buy?
  3. Which offers greater benefits for students and/or the district (short term and/or long term)?


36 Responses to “Athletics or laptops?”

  1. That is a point that has been brought up in several places. Our athletes cover the cost of sports with “pay to play” fees ($400 at the high school, $300 at the Junior High). Our budget is beyond tight, having no new money in 8 or 9 years, with predicted deficits every year (yet somehow we end up in the black, which is one reason we cannot pass a levy for new money). I am a coach and tech geek, so I see the need for both. I also see the need for students to pay some part of the cost, otherwise they go around thinking everything in life is free. I agree with someone in the past who has said, “you find money for what is important”

    • Paul, I believe that school is for learning. I don’t get why so much of the money is dumped into non-academic sports? I feel that much more of this money that goes to sports could be used to improve a schools education, especially buying laptops for 1:1.

  2. I agree that sometimes there have to be priorities made. Our athletes pay nothing to play, yet they get new equipment and uniforms very often and spend a lot of money on buses to far away games. They also miss alot of afternoon classes because of early games.

    I think that spending $500 on netbooks or laptops would be a much better use of the money. Heck, we need science supplies and equipment and were told there was no money, yet the football and baseball teams got new uniforms. There is an admission charge for football games, but it doesn’t even come close to covering any costs.

    I hate to say it, but in reduced budgets, sports should be cut first, not academics.

    • @Dave, that was sort of the point of my original post (if you click the link). I was not suggesting that 1-to-1 laptops was the best use of money, but rather pointing out what a small fraction of the Athletics budget could do for technology. Our K-12 Science budget is about 3% of the “Extra-Curricular” budget, and that’s one of the larger departmental budgets. Puts things in a different light.

  3. A better comparison is the cost of new textbooks vs. laptops. In our rural disctict in northern NJ with about 3000 students, we projected $240 per student on textbooks and supplies and $207 per students on extra-curriculars for the 2010-11 SY. Clearly, a laptop can accomplish the same end as a textbook (with better results), but it cannot replace the benefits of an athletic/club experience.

    Additionally, there are concrete studies that link athletic participation to academic achievement, whereas much of the effects of laptops is clouded by socio-economic disparity. Schools with laptops are usually more affluent.

    My position has and will be that we should redirect at least a portion of textbook monies to the purchasing of new hardware.

  4. I will weigh in on this one as I am a coach and Technology Facilitator at my school. The is nothing more relevant in education that athletics. Sure technology is critical to our students success, but being a part of a team in high school pays dividends that can’t even begin to be calculated. Leadership, accountability, fairness, work ethic and many many more. Besides my district doesn’t spend that much on athletics. Most of the money comes from the booster clubs.

    • And exactly how many students participate in athletics, and are there equal opportunities for girls (yes, there is Title IX, but how about reality…)
      If you think that the district does not spend that much on Athletics, look at the actual budget. In the district that I work at the un-recouped expenses were over $580,000 and that’s what wasn’t hidden in general expenses (maintenance, utilities, cost of covering coaches’ classes when they leave early)

    • @Chris,
      I agree that team sports contribute the things you describe. Leadership, accountability, etc. The problem with athletics is, they are by nature exclusionary. You have to “make” the team. So only a few students get the opportunity to learn these skills. Many students simply aren’t good enough athletes to play team sports in high school. The exclusionary nature of sports contributes to the “Jock and Burnout” phenomenon. We need to find a better way to teach these skills. One that doesn’t put 11 on the field and 2000 in the grandstand. I know there are other sports opportunities, but we all know the only teams that get attention are the Varsity squads.

  5. I’m not sure if this is apples to apples comparison. Some athletic departments I’m aware of do not receive money from the same funds (general fund, property tax, etc) that technology does. Revenue to pay coaches, referees and purchase uniforms may come from gate receipts, athletic passes, boosters and sports camp revenue. I’d be interested to hear from other schools – are your sports programs self-sustaining?

  6. I have always thought (and occasionally blurt out 🙂 that high school athletics, especially football, is one of the biggest wastes of money in American education. People respond with either the “it builds character” line or about how the programs pay for themselves (which is certainly not true in our district) but neither is a compelling argument as far as I’m concerned.

    Music, art, drama, and dance also help kids develop character, as well as their unique talents, and at the same time are accessible to far more students for the money spent. But arts programs are often the first to be cut during bad budget times, while school boards bend over backwards to preserve sports.

  7. As the mother of two former athletes, I agree that having an athletic program is just as important as having the best technology. My husband passed away when my children were in high school. It was some of their coaches that became their mentors, along with their teammates. Learning to be a part of a team is a great experience that every student can benefit from.
    As a teacher, technology is just as important as extra- curricular activities. However, I agree with Mark in that we should find alternate ways to fund the best technology for our students. Perhaps it is time for companies to sponser our schools for things like sports and technology. As a teacher, technology is important and I agree with Mark in his assessment. One should not hurt the other. Finding other solutions has to be the answer.

    • @Terry
      Now that’s an interesting idea… all the local club sports (Youth Baseball, PeeWee Football, etc.) get business/group sponsorships, why not school teams?
      “This Chemistry Lab brought to you by Vinny’s Pizza Shop”?

      I have to disagree on athletics, not because they aren’t helpful, but because of the extremely high cost per participant, and the very low rate of participation, and the inequality in the spending (look at the spending on Football vs. well, any other extracurricular activity) and opportunities (the only reason that most districts can claim anything close to meeting Title IX is through counting Cheerleading and/or Flag Line, but not offering girls Hockey, Volleyball, Soccer, Basketball, etc.)

  8. The cost of the notebook is not $500. Gartner and other surveys show the procurement cost of a computer is only 1/3 the real cost. Notebooks are a terrible choice. Limited by loaded software, drivers, os. Possible target of theft. And of course, all the “illegal” content that gets loaded.

  9. In our district, academics consistently take a back seat to athletics. Last year, the budget was reduced and the first cuts were made to lay off teacher associates. The board also threatened to cut band and music programs but refused to touch the sacred cows of sports. The Board then turned around and voted to spend over 2 million dollars to install an artificial turf practice field. Not a playing field – just a practice field.

    Our textbooks are outdated, our computers are crap, field trips are nonexistent, and class sizes are way up, yet we’ve got money for athletics. Go figure.

  10. Looking at data statewide for Iowa in FY09, a total of $7.2 billion in revenue was available for K-12 education, supporting the education of 477,000 students with the help of 41,000 licensed staff. According to the state report, $120 million of the $7.2 billion total (2%) was tied to the student activity fund. $6.5 million of this was from the general fund… the rest from the activity fund. All student activity fund funding came from local school funding (not state or federal aid).

    If we used a planning number of $500/year for the total cost of a computer on a three year replacement plan for every student and staff member, we’d be looking at an annual cost of $260 million to equip every student and staff member with a computer. This is more than twice the amount currently spent on student activities (all activities, not just athletics….).

    The point here is that there is plenty of funding in the system to support an expansion of instructional technology. It is just a matter of priorities. But every other part of the school budget (i.e. athletics) has a head start and is more deeply entrenched than instructional technology. While many will talk the talk about the merits of instructional technology, when budget time comes few are willing to give up a piece of their budget to support more instructional technology.

    At the same time, at least in Iowa, every year collective bargaining rules allow a little more of the education budget to move to salaries and benefits for teachers, taking away from the operational funding allocations traditionally used for instructional technology. And it is hard for districts to be creative in seeking new funding for technology, because it’s hard to then not have to put that funding on the table at collective bargaining time. So it is going to be increasingly difficult to support instructional technology with long term strategic funding budgeting, and more likely that instructional technology budgeting will increasingly rely on one time sources of funding with limited sustainability. In Iowa, district’s with higher property tax bases already have an advantage in this school funding nuance. The sad thing is that these same districts tend to be more affluent, which means their students have access to technology outside of the school walls. So it appears rich districts will get richer, and poor districts will get poorer… the digital divide will continue to grow and will continue to contribute to achievement gap woes in districts unable to shift their budget priorities more in favor of instructional technology.

  11. Anyone who thinks athletics are not an essential part of American Education is tremendously short-sighted. As a teacher, tech facilitator, and coach and I can tell you that the benefits of extracurriculars are to numerous to count. If schools do not offer them, there would exist a large segment of our population with no access to those activities.

    • Kyle, I believe that we should still have athletics, but have smaller conferences. All athletic programs need to find ways to cut $$$$ off their athletic programs. For example, our school bought wrestling mats, which cost $5000+. These are only used for those 10-15 kids who wrestle. That money could have been used to buy 5+ laptops for 1:1.

  12. Which has the greater long-term benefits for our students, athletics or laptops? I have a MS regarding curriculum and technology integration. Yet, my clear opinion is that athletics provide much greater long-term benefits to our students over providing them with laptops. Athletics are character building. They provide students with an outlet for developing self-esteem. Most importantly, they promote a healthy life-style. Obesity is such a problem for America’s youth. Computers promote a sedentary lifestyle.

    Additionally, athletics can help students develop a level of self-confidence which allows them the confidence to take risks, especially academically. They’ve lost games, and therefore are willing to fail, with the understanding that failure, actually promotes growth. Additionally, the self-confidence will help them take the risk to develop the most important computer they’ll ever posess…their own brain.

  13. I would like to quote what my IT Coordinator emailed me about this: “Or, when was the last time the Pentagon held a bake sale to fund a new fighter plane or stealth bomber?”

    • Haven’t you noticed the campaigns to buy a pound of coffee or a phone card to send to “the troops?” Americans have fund-raised for body armor and making vehicles safer.

      It’s just as disgusting to fund-raise for the military as it is for public schools.

      In both cases, large corporations are profiting while the humans involved in the actual work suffer.

  14. Give me band and choir any day over athletics. At the college I attended, all competition was intramural. In rural Colorado, that makes so much more sense than busing kids all over the western slope. My son made it into All State Choir; we hope to hear soon that his hours of practice earned him a spot in All State Band as well. The superintendent told us that it cost $60,000 to maintain the football field at one high school in our district. We’re trying to raise money for new instruments by having bake sales. The sign I put up in the halls during my senior year of high school is still true: “De-emphasize sports; re-emphasize education.”

    • On another note, we’re one of the only (perhaps the only) nation to have sport be school-based. This makes it exponentially more expensive, more exclusive and less democratic.

  15. There is no evidence that playing sports, at any level, builds character or self-esteem in students. If anything, our sports obsessed society and the jock culture found in most high schools has led to the exact opposite.

    High schools encourage the win-at-any-cost mentality that pervades our hallways, pep assemblies, homecoming courts, and practice fields. We have steroid abuse, hazing, dangerous weight cutting, exclusion and bullying of non-athletes, and an overwhelming emphasis on sports over education.

    If you believe high school sports build character, take a look at the Facebook pages created by rival football teams. Athletes with “good character” and “high self-esteem” make rude, crude, mean, and downright filthy comments about each other. The taunts, bullying and name calling that these athletes display is nothing short of abusive.

    Claiming that high school sports are more beneficial to students than the power and educational opportunities a computer would provide every student is a sad, sad statement about the focus and purpose of our educational system. We’re here to educate – not create the next sports star.

  16. In my 20 years of working in “laptop schools,” the cost of a laptop per child has never been more than a few percent of the annual per pupil spending (at market rates).

    Put another way, a laptop is cheaper than a trombone rental – often LOTS cheaper than sports participation especially since we began the abhorrent practice of getting kids to pay for extracurricular activities.

    Cynthia Solomon and Seymour Papert said in 1971 that “If every child were given access to a computer, computers would be cheap enough for every child to be given access to a computer.”

  17. If you cannot make your case for money without trying to taking it from existing, unrelated programs, you cannot make it at all.

    I’m not against 1:1 computers, but I do have a problem with asking a question just so you can argue one side in the comments.

    Think of the possibilities though. We could graduate a whole generation of smart fat kids with carpal tunnel who would only have athletic, arts, or music exposure because their parents had the money to purchase it for them.

    • I don’t pretend to speak for Scott, but if you look at my original statement in context, it’s about Priorities not robbing Peter to pay Paul, and that 1:1 and Education Technology are not actually the budget busters that they are often described as.
      As a counterpoint, we spend more on Extracurricular sports than other nations… doesn’t appear to be working too well at producing healthy, athletic children either.

  18. Some of these comments are just plain fun.

    Jeff’s “We could graduate a whole generation of smart fat kids with carpal tunnel who would only have athletic, arts, or music exposure because their parents had the money to purchase it for them.”

    Our goal should be to provide our students with the most opportunity to grow and develop their talents. Why does it have to be one or the other?

    School should be richer information deep environment than home. Without meaningful and transformative technology integration in schools we are short changing students. It’s easy to make excuses for why we put off the planning and work that makes this happen.

    @ Julie
    It’s about the co-curricular experience building character. It usually does this because these experiences are often the ones where students have a direct role in the success of the organization unlike the traditional classroom characterized by passive learning styles. Yes in some cases a community values the role of athletes to much. But we shouldn’t take the example of a handful of jerks and claim this is how all sports teams are. As a former baseball coach I remember clearly examples of where the confidence a student gained on the diamond translated into a renewed work ethic in the classroom and a deeper sense of pride in their school community. Good coaches know how to weave life lessons into what they do just as good teachers do.

  19. Charlie & Roy,

    First of all, when I was a kid it was highly peculiar if you played organized sports. There were a handful of high school teams and Little League, but just plain-old playing outside was more the norm. Now a bazillion percent more kids spend a bazillion more dollars playing sports and the population as a whole gets fatter.

    Second, “richer information deep environment” should not be the primary reason for schooling. In fact, it is quite possible that school is less “information deep” than outside of school. Even if what you state is true, information access represents the tiniest portion of what it means to be educated.

    Kids should have available to them the richest range of meaningful experiences in a variety of domains and activities. If we relegate education as information access, school as a delivery mechanism and the computer as a way of looking stuff up or even commenting on fabulous blogs, we are cheating kids.

  20. @ Gary,

    I’d agree school should be much more than just access to information. What I’m against is the notion that having a successful athletic program affiliated with a school some how prevents other opportunities from happening. Good schools work to create an environment where students are involved.

    In our case the gate and concession money from home football, soccer, and basketball games provides the funding for an array of other co-curricular opportunities. Even if the finances weren’t there I’d still want these opportunities for the students.

    The time allotment sports now seem to consume should be noted. . A single sport is no longer an eight week season but rather a commitment to year long club sports and weekend tournaments all over the country. What I fear for some of my student athletes is the push to be the best robs them of other activities.

    For my own children I want a variety of experiences. I want them to play an instrument, write for the student paper, enjoy the robotics team, and play a sport or two. More I want them to have a range of opportunities to choose from so they can find and develop their own interests and talents.

  21. As an educator, I have never been convinced that sports leads to greater character. I do see the benefits or regular exercise, but I don’t see that middle school or secondary athletics leads to a positive ethical outlook. In fact, the student athletes are often the ones who resort to cheating in order to maintain eligibility.

    Interesting snippet regarding cheating:

  22. @Charlie

    I would agree that some extra curricular activities help students learn to cooperate, give back to their communities, and gain an appreciation of the satisfaction one gets when serving others.

    Volunteer activities that welcome all students and allow everyone to participate can be wonderful character building experiences. Service clubs are a prime example.

    However, secondary athletics with their exclusionary practices, cut policies, and over emphasis on winning at all costs, do not build character, morals, or ethical values in our students.

    Many years ago, when high school sports and coaches focused on fun, play, and exercise, students probably did come away from athletic participation having learned something valuable and applicable to life beyond the football field.

    However, our communities, our high schools and our coaches have professionalized youth sports to the point that winning is the only thing that counts. Kids now have to specialize in one sport by the age of 9 in order to play that sport in high school. Kids have to practice year round, pay for elite summer sports camps, get professional level coaching during Spring break, pay to play expensive and exclusionary club ball during the off season, and take the least rigorous classes possible in order to play sports.

    Due to this pressure, the number of orthopaedic injuries in high school sports has sky-rocketed over the last 25 years. Young kids are blowing out knees, getting Tommy John surgery, suffering life-changing concussions and ruining their bodies — all before they’ve graduated from high school

    Coaches, communities and parents have put so much unhealthy and inappropriate pressure on high school athletes that they cheat, use performance enhancing drugs, ignore academics, and then begin to think and act like professional level stars. Many of these “star” athletes have very selfish attitudes, look down on other students,bully freely and believe (and act) like their grades should be handed to them on a silver platter.

    And it’s not just a handful of jerks; the problem with high school athletics taking over academics is widespread.

    Take a look at any small to mid-size community newspaper. The local high school sports teams get full-press coverage every week. Academics might get a couple of sentences buried on the last page.

    Education Week covers this very topic today:

  23. Thanks for letting me give my two cents…
    I talk about both coaching and technology in my newest ebook, which you can download for free at this link:
    You may not be able to read it all in one sitting, as it is 65 pages long! As a former coach, I would have to side with those who think athletics eats a far larger piece of the monetary pie than it should.

  24. I would like to know how many of these people who claim that coaches promote winning at all costs, exclude segments of the school population, and do not build character in the students have ever coached or known coaches. I invite you to visit my school (and probably 99% of schools in the country) and visit with coaches to see if your assumptions are correct. The biases you present in your posts are ignorant, incorrect, and hurtful. Of course there are coaches who behave badly…there are people in every profession who behave badly. Unfortunately I see educators on this page who “behave badly” by blindly dismissing athletics and unfairly characterizing athletes. Openly biased educators are far more problematic than any athletic budget ever could be.

  25. @MCS,

    Thanks for that. I’ve been a coach of several sports and find it an interesting and new way to interact with my students. I’m no athlete and I’m likely to be cut from every team sport you could imagine. But, I fill in at my school when needed. It has always led to a rewarding experience for me and my students that benefited the classroom.

    Yea you heard me correct, me coaching and students playing helped the learning in my classroom. It’s more than I can say for a 1 to 1 laptop program.

    I recently watched a presentation where the researcher suggested that the ideal number of laptops to students was 1 to 4. Based completely on observational evidence of child behavior.

    Anyhow, I do like technology, but the assumption that computers = success is deeply overrated. So much more goes on with a developing child than what a laptop can offer.

  26. The inner city high school where I worked for 21 years does not have wealthy booster clubs nor can students be charged anything to play on a team or belong to a club. Fundraising has become grueling since no food items can any longer be sold. So, all the money for athletics comes from the general budget, which gets cut more and more here in California.

    Another aspect from where I taught: the athletes didn’t have the grades to be able to play; the kids who had the grades weren’t the top athletes but they were all heart. In other words, we lost every game.

  27. So, of all these comments of a year ago, what if any changes have any of you made? Should the athlete pay to play? Should school boards be forced to realign academic success as a priority? Does the local community disengage from the allure of its HS/MS athletic achievements? How does the community consider the future for the athletes, most of whom haven’t any chance for such a career? Should sports be a community event like little league baseball, pee wee football, club sports and get it out of the school setting?

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