In what may be the largest cash gift to a school system from a private foundation, the Idaho Department of Education has been hit by an $80 million windfall to outfit its schools in state-of-the-art technology.

The sum represents the largest chunk of a $110 million gift to “energize” Idaho education programs given by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, founded in 1966 by the successful grocery store family.

Foundation trustees approved the plan at a board meeting on May 21. The remainder of the noncompetitive grant will support student reading skills, pre-school readiness, and teaching standards.

Classroom technology by far outpaced the other initiatives, nabbing over 70 percent of the funding pot. School officials believe it’s the biggest single-state education grant ever to be awarded. Rich Mincer, bureau chief of the Idaho State Department of Education’s Bureau of Technology Services, said that school officials were stunned by the amount of the grant.<

“We were saying that $20-30 million would be beneficial” in talks with the foundation, Mincer said. In light of Idaho’s scant student population–about 250,000–“it’s a tremendous gift.”

“This commitment from the Albertson Foundation means that Idaho teachers will be on the leading edge to improving academic performance by using state-of-the-art technology,” said Anne C. Fox, Idaho superintendent of public instruction. “An important part of this initiative is strong accountability using our expanded testing program to monitor whether students’ skills are improving.”

The gift exceeds the $50 million that the government has pumped into technology for Idaho schools in the past four years in state, local, and federal moneys. With these funds, schools have been able to develop technology plans and begin preliminary purchases of equipment.

Mincer said that many districts in the state have been anxiously awaiting eRate funds to propel the statewide technology plan, set in place in 1994. While the state was well on its way to providing internet service for every classroom, Mincer said, more was spent on retrofitting Idaho’s aging school buildings than originally planned. That meant scaling back on spending for new machines.

But the new plan will ensure that every teacher in the state gets a brand-new multimedia computer, Mincer said. The Idaho Council for Technology in Learning, a state agency that will help administer the grant, is devising a plan that would shift older computers to areas where state-of-the-art technology capabilities isn’t as important as it is in the classroom.

The technology spending will include:

  • More than $28 million in one-time noncompetitive grants to school districts for computer equipment and educational technology for teachers.

  • More than $11 million during the next three years to support teacher training in the use of technology and how to apply technology to better teach students.

  • More than $23 million during the next three years to support innovative and enhanced approaches to teaching with technology.

  • More than $18 million to help equip professional technical academies.

One-time, noncompetitive grants totaling $28 million will be distributed in cooperation with the Idaho Council for Technology in Learning for the 1998-99 school year. Funds will also pay for three staff members for the council to help administer the program and provide technical support.

The council is a 15-member board made up of Superintendent of Public Instruction Fox, four state legislators and representatives of various state agencies, public schools and libraries. Six regional technology advisers from public colleges, universities, and vocational technical education also work to support the council.

The Albertson legacy

The foundation’s mission is to foster improvement of education in Idaho–a mission that makes it unique, said Susan Gray, assistant editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Few, if any, privately-held foundations focus exclusively on supporting public education projects throughout a single state. Technology philanthropy, Gray pointed out, tends to come from corporate foundations with a vested interest, such as IBM’s Reinventing Education program or AT&T’s Learning Network.

The Annenberg Foundation may come close, Gray said, but its scope is national. In the past few years the Annenberg has awarded nearly $500 million to schools in 11 states. A private, local foundation like the Albertson is a real boon to Idaho education, Gray said. “They have a lot of influence. It’s a good cause.”

The foundation was established in 1966 by the late grocery store magnate Joe Albertson and his widow Kathryn. But it wasn’t until Mrs. Albertson transferred her shares of the company’s stock–a cache of $700 million–that the foundation began to seek out education projects to fund.

Almost overnight, it became one of the 30 largest foundations in the United States. It may be the only one of its size limited primarily to one area of giving–education.

With such a focused giving priority, the foundation has the potential to turn Idaho into a national leader for innovative programs to improve schools, said Robert Barr, dean of Boise State’s College of Education.

One of the initiatives was the Idaho Management for Change (IMC), led by school reform guru Willard Daggett. An appearance by Daggett in Boise led to grants for 34 school districts and individual schools which will enable them to work with consultants from Daggett’s International Center for Leadership in Education. Their goal is to bring schools and communities together to shape curriculum.

“The foundation is clearly looking to make systemic changes in our schools–it’s about restructuring. And they have the resources to make a huge impact,” says William Parrett, director of Boise State University’s Center for School Improvement.

Ringing off the hook

The Albertson foundation money isn’t slated until the next school year, and school and foundation officials have not yet chosen vendors for the equipment purchases, said Mincer. But they’re already lining up: “My phone is ringing off the hook.”

Mincer said that the team will be looking at makers of computer desktop systems, projection devices, television sets, DVD, and some emerging technology like play stations. Idaho’s primary vendor in the past has been nearby Micron, based in Boise.

Because Micron is locally owned and a major employer in the state, along with Hewlett-Packard, “they have a pretty good leg up” on competition, Mincer said.

But, he added, the state will still consider bids from Compaq, Gateway, Dell, and IBM. Apple is not a big seller in the state, according to Mincer.

Idaho State Department of Education