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10 Southern States Create a Network To Share Information

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In a unique example of regional cooperation, ten Southern states will begin operating a computerized "education information network" in January.

The network, funded in part by the National Institute of Education (nie), will give participating state officials the opportunity to share systematically the facts and figures that lie behind education policy changes. It is believed to be the first formal effort of its kind in the country.

Developed by the the Southeastern Regional Council for Educational Improvement (srcei), the network will provide policy-makers and administrators with ready access to computerized data from the participating states. The states include Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

The computerized data base will, in essence, replace the word-of-mouth system by which state and local education officials now trade information and experience. But because the data will be collected, stored, and analyzed systematically, the system will also offer administrators a "projection of what the future might look like," said Bernice Willis, deputy director for the srcei "We recognize that all projections are just that--projections," she added. "But this will tell us what are the best projections."

Establishing the education information network is part of the council's overall goal of increasing the dialogue between the states, Ms. Willis said.

Funded by the participating states and the nie, the council has been in existence since 1979. In that time, it has published numerous analyses and "occasional papers" in the realm of educational policy, Ms. Willis said. "We don't make policy. We look at options they [education officials from the states] might consider," she explained.

The idea for the network originated with the state officials, Ms. Willis said, who applied for funding from nie Beginning with a small planning grant, the project received $350,000 in nie funds for the first year, and $405,000 for the second year. nie funding will decrease significantly once the network is in operation, Ms. Willis said.

January Start for Network

The information network will get off to a modest start in January, when the council staff will be able to provide the users with state-level statistics. Gathered by participating states, the information will be housed in a computer system based at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. States will gain access to the data either through the council, or, eventually, through their own on-line systems. Later in the spring, Ms. Willis said, the council expects to be able to offer users data on individual districts.

For both state and local school administrators, the network will offer significant advantages, according to Marshall L. Frinks, director of state-federal relations for the Florida Department of Education. "We think it has a lot of potential," he said, adding that when the network is fully operational, it will provide education officials with more timely data than are now available from other sources, such as the National Education Association. In addition, he explained, state officials can conduct analyses specifically suited to their needs. "You can run your own tabulations, and make your own graphs," Mr. Frinks noted.

The network will also help officials plan for future needs, he said. For example, enrollment in Florida's public schools is growing, Mr. Frinks explained, making it possible that the state will experience a teacher shortage in the future. If Florida officials have access to centralized data on education graduates in other states, then they will know where they can quickly turn for more teachers.

State officials can also use the network to plan for shifts in student populations that may require closing some schools or building new ones. "It will cut down on repetition," Mr. Frinks said. "You won't have to keep asking the same people for the same information. That's a timesaver right there."

In order to standardize the data, the council's staff will first define various "indicators"--enrollment, migration, and race, for instance--for the states to use when they collect data. This systematic approach, noted several officials, will mean that some states must modify or adapt their current methods of gathering statistics to conform to the council's definitions.

Some jurisdictions, for example, keep track of student attendance by using "average daily attendance." Others use "full-time enrollment." Initially, at least, state officials will have to convert the data from one to the other.

For the 10 states that compose the srcei, the network will also provide a method of quickly analyzing the impact of federal budget cuts, and of looking at the various ways in which individual states are using federal funds. In light of current federal budget cuts, several officials noted, this will be an extremely valuable resource.

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