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Whatever happened to a free education?
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Read the fine print.

Parents in the Manteca Unified School District starting in January face the real possibility of shelling out $499 so their kid can continue to get an eduction.

That’s because Going Digital means if the Panasonic 3E device their child is issued is damaged beyond repair or is lost or stolen, parents will be “required to pay up to the full replacement cost of the device.”

That’s a cool $499.

But wait, there’s more. You can enter into a lease/purchase agreement with your friendly neighborhood school district that offers you the option to buy the device at the end of four years. For the low monthly price of $5 for one child you can buy peace of mind should your child break, lose, or have the device stolen. And it will only cost you $50 extra to have the device replaced with a lease/purchase agreement. The second time it happens the price jumps to $150. As for the third occurrence, if you have to ask you can’t afford it.

To avoid being on the hook for $499 all it will cost you over the course of four years is $240.

If you don’t like the program or if your kid has a tendency to be a tad on the irresponsible side with items, the district isn’t worried. You have no choice. It’s mandatory. 

But consider this: Because you have been forced to “buy” a product with Microsoft software you — and all Manteca Unified School District students and their families — will receive a 10 percent discount off of Microsoft software and 5 percent “off just about everything else at Microsoft retail stores.”

Gee, is Going Digital about education or Microsoft trying to squeeze out Apple? It might surprise people at the top at Manteca Unified but Microsoft is profit-driven.

And now for the $30 million question that the school board apparently didn’t ask: In a district where roughly 60 percent of the 22,000 students receive free or reduced lunches due to their family’s financial situation, how can they afford Going Digital given the very real prospect they will have to shell out money at some point to replace a device?

Those swooning over rubbing elbows with Microsoft will likely say the chances of a device being broken, stolen or lost are low. They even might point out that if a student loses or damages a textbook they have to replace it. But there’s a big difference between $40 and $499. And who doesn’t know an adult who over the years has wrecked or lost two or more cellphones?

The district has repeatedly noted that there are 700 kids in the schools who meet the definition of homeless. They bounce around from locale to locale and some even sleep on the streets. Any bets that they are going to be at risk for more breakage, loss or stolen tablets? Perhaps the district will seize their parents’ cars that do double duty some nights as a bedroom to cover the bill.

In my neighborhood alone, I know off four instances where grandparents who have nothing but Social Security are raising school-aged grandkids. Yes, they do get government help but here’s the rub. They are barely getting by.

Oh, I forgot. Going Digital is preparing those kids for the 21st century job market. In fact, one of the big justifications for doing Going Digital for everyone from kindergarten to 12th grade is the fear there are some students who might not be exposed to technology.

Forget the fact that tablet sales are declining, larger smartphones are cutting into tablet territory, and that laptops continue to be the device that college students use.

Yes, computers are involved in everything. But here’s the funny thing. Most jobs that don’t require a college degree use straight-forward technology that can be mastered in days if not hours. McDonald’s for example, is shifting to a system where customers will punch their orders in at counter tablets as a way to reduce a restaurant’s exposure to higher labor costs through rising minimum wage and healthcare costs. 

It is important that those kids have access to a free education. No matter how the Madison Avenue types working for Manteca Unified and Microsoft pitch it, the odds are significant that the burden of paying for a “free” public education will shift a bit to those that can least afford it when a device is stolen, broken or lost.

But all of this should be academic.

Perhaps someone in the upper echelons of Manteca Unified will use a Panasonic 3E device to research how a district such as Ripon Unified that doesn’t have digital devices in the hands of students and still has one school site with carpets held together by duct tape in portable classrooms that really do have buckling floors, deteriorating walls, and doors that don’t close properly manage to not just perform better than Manteca Unified on various state tests but consistently lead the entire county?

Could it be something to do with how that district supports teachers and engages parents?

Manteca Unified is indeed changing how kids are educated.

But whether that change is more window dressing won’t be known for years.

And it will carry a big price for taxpayers and parents with the least able to afford to put food on the table possibly hit the hardest.

One last thought: If a student trips over a duct taped carpet while carrying their device and breaks it, who is responsible — their parents or the school district?


This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 209.249.3519.