For the first time, Florida's sales tax holiday includes a break on high-tech devices such as computers and iPads.
Treasure Coast public schools don't require students to have the latest technological tools, but some parents will upgrade their back-to-school shopping lists to include the popular items. Still, parents are projected to spend about $54 less on school supplies than last year.
The three-day tax holiday starts 12:01 a.m. Friday and select technology items will be tax-free as long as they are $750 or less. Clothing and footwear will be tax-free through 11:59 p.m. Sunday as long as each item is no more than $75 each; the limit on school supplies is $15 per item.
Many families plan to reuse some items from last year and more will compare prices online, according to the National Retail Foundation. The federation's annual Back-to-School Survey found families with school-aged children will spend an average $634.78 on apparel, shoes, supplies and electronics, down from $688.62 last year.
"For some families, there just simply is not a need to splurge every year. They might have stocked up on some of these items last year," federation President and CEO Matthew Shay said. "You don't necessarily have to have everything new for every child every year."
TECHNOLOGY IN SCHOOLS
Bringing a cellphone or other handheld computerized device to school used to warrant a detention. These days, some teachers use these previously prohibited devices during school hours as part of their lesson plans. It's a trend that is expected to grow as all three Treasure Coast school districts are testing voluntary "bring your own device" programs.
The programs don't require, just allow technology, so parents aren't required to buy tablets and smartphones for their children, school officials say.
"I'm not promoting going out and buying devices for this purpose," said Bruce Green, Indian River's assistant superintendent of technology and assessment. "When it becomes a requirement to have a device, that's when it becomes the responsibility of the district."
The St. Lucie district has been looking for the best device that can eventually replace textbooks.
"Instead of buying multiple devices, the idea is to find the solution that meets all educational needs, whether it be testing, curriculum content that they utilize during the day, tools they may need, such as scientific calculators," said Terence O'Leary, St. Lucie's assistant superintendent of Information Technology Services.
As St. Lucie enters the third year of its unique five-year partnership with the world's largest publisher of educational materials, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the district will roll out a small pilot where it assigns students tablets, which will be used in the classroom and at home.
Martin schools also are exploring ways to get devices into students hands during school hours.
Lisa Rhodes, executive director of the Education Foundation of Martin County, said the foundation has given teachers grants for iPads, Kindles and other devices so they could enhance lessons. The foundation also purchased tablets for a mobile classroom cart for Murray Middle School.
With the district's and parents' budgets stressed, the foundation hopes to help.
"We're preparing students today for careers of tomorrow," Rhodes said. "To have our students be capable of using different technologies and be comfortable with it is going to be key for them as they move forward."
A PARENT'S PERSPECTIVE
Port St. Lucie mother Gena McCown said it's a struggle to equip her three children with the latest technology.
"I find it most difficult with my oldest, who is 14 and entering high school," McCown said. "At this age, they are more focused on what is new and hot than cost effectiveness."
Each of the McCown girls has her own computer, 10-year-old Shelby also has a Kindle Fire and 14-year-old Casey has a Galaxy smartphone. Naomi, 6, has a Wii gaming system.
"With the advancement in technology we felt it was very important that our children understood how to use (computers) properly and comfortably," McCown said. "By 3 years old, all of our children were able to download their own games."
While McCown is glad the state is giving a tax break on those tech items, she thinks it would be more helpful around December.
"We spend too much as it is on school supplies, clothes and other things needed to start off the school year," she said. "If they want to really boost tech items, how about tax free on tech items before Christmas?"
Even though digital devices aren't mandatory, students flock to technology when writing reports, researching papers or finishing homework.
After-school programs such as the Boys & Girls Clubs sometimes provide computer labs to bridge the digital gap for students who don't have technology at home.
"There is a real need," said Elizabeth Thomason, director of the Indian River County chapter. "In order to do their homework, they have to do research. Our computers allow them to do that."
This year, the club obtained a grant from Quail Valley Charities for new laptop computers children can move, she said. One of the club's board members also donated five Kindle readers to the clubs to encourage children to read, she said.
"The kids love (the Kindle). Unfortunately, we only have five," Thomason said. "It's just taking advantage of that technology to instill in the children the love for reading."
Computers also are popular in after-school programs in Martin and St. Lucie.
At the Boys & Girls Clubs in Martin, a donor bought the same math software used in the district schools for students to use at the club. This allows children to come to the club and finish what they were working on at school, said club spokesman David Vaina.
The after-school programs have "power hour" for members when they first arrive in the afternoons. This is the time when students are supposed to do their homework, so they don't have to worry about it when they get home. Martin clubs also have digital cameras students can use to create movies and video projects, Vaina said.
While some of the club members may have access to technology at home, not all do, Vaina said.
The St. Lucie Children's Services Council helps fund 14 after-school programs, providing computers and technology to students.
"Access to the Internet helps with student assignments," said Sean Boyle, the council's executive director. "They have to do research papers, and they have to have sources."
These computers and related accessories are tax-free during the tax holiday as long as they are $750 or less:
Car adapters for laptop computers
Compact disc drives
Computer batteries, cables
Docking stations (designed for a computer)
Central processing units (CPU)
Ear buds and headphones
Electronic book readers
Flash, jump, thumb and zip drives
Memory cards (except for digital cameras, cellphones)
Monitors (except devices that include a television tuner)
Personal digital assistant devices (except cellular telephones)
Portable hard drives
Speakers (for computers)
These items are tax-free during the three-day sales tax holiday, as long as they cost $15 or less:
Cellophane (transparent) tape
Computer disks (blank CDs)
Glue (stick and liquid)
Notebook filler paper
Notebooks, legal pads
Pens, pencils and refills
Poster board and paper
Starting at 12:01 a.m. Friday and ending at 11:59 p.m. Sunday, the state is waiving sales tax on clothes, footwear and certain accessories selling for $75 or less. The items include:
Aerobic, fitness clothing
Backpacks, book bags
Barrettes and bobby pins
Bathing suits, caps and cover-ups
Belts, belt buckles
Boots (except ski boots)
Bowling shoes (unless rented)
Caps and hats
Cleated and spiked shoes
Coats and wraps
Diapers, diaper inserts (adult and baby, cloth or disposable)
Formal clothing (unless rented)
Gloves (including dress, garden, leather and work gloves, but not for sports)
Graduation caps and gowns
Gym suits and uniforms
Hair nets, bows, clips and bands
Martial arts attire
Overshoes and rubber shoes
Raincoats, rain hats and ponchos
Safety clothing, safety shoes
Shoulder pads (not for sports)
Ski suits (snow)
Sleepwear, nightgowns, pajamas
Sports uniforms (except pads, helmets)
Suits, slacks and jackets
Swim suits and trunks
Uniforms (work, school and athletic, excluding pads)
NOT TAX-FREE ITEMS
There are some exclusions to what is not exempt from the holiday with clothes, accessories and school supplies even if they meet the price threshold. In past years, books were included in Florida's tax holidays, but like last year, books will be taxed except Bibles, which are always exempt from tax.
While you won't be charged tax on a backpack of $75 or less, you will be charged tax on a briefcase or suitcase. Though computers $750 or less are tax-free this year, computer bags will still be taxed.
Baby clothes and baby receiving blankets are exempt, but crib blankets are taxed.
Diaper bags are tax-free, but duffel bags are not.
A snow ski suit is tax-free, but snow ski boots, water ski vests and diving suits are taxed.
Hats are tax-free, but hard hats and helmets are not.
Construction and poster paper are tax-free, but printer paper is still taxed.
Tablets and electronic book readers will be tax-free but cases and covers for these devices are taxed.
Cellphones, smartphones, cameras, video game systems and consoles, MP3 players will still be taxed. Games and gaming software will be taxed but anti-virus, word-processing and other "non-recreational" software will be tax-free.
Students who do not have a computer at home can get free or reduced-cost access at libraries and computer labs.
Public libraries in Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties provide free access to computers and the Internet. Printing fees and time restrictions may apply, depending on how many people want to use the computer.
After-school programs such as the Boys & Girls Clubs, Frontline, YMCA and some extended-day programs have computers for members and enrollees.
Some schools may allow students to access computer labs before or after school.
Comcast Cable's Internet Essentials package, for families eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, costs $9.95 a month. Internet-ready laptops are available for about $150 under the same program. Participants must live in the Comcast area, not have been a Comcast subscriber for the past 90 days and must not have overdue Comcast bills. About 12,000 Florida families currently participate in the program, according to Comcast. For details, call 855-846-8376 or go to www.internetessentials.com.