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California School-Technology Effort Hangs in the Balance

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California educators and their allies in the legislature are attempting to convince Gov. George Deukmejian to continue a state program that has furnished schools with more than $50 million worth of computers and electronic learning aids over the past four years.

But the job of winning support for the educational-technology program, which will expire at the end of this month if not reauthorized, is being hampered by a lack of evidence that it has been effective.

"The perception is that grants have gone out pretty much based on whoever wanted to ask for them," said Ken Hargis, a spokesman for Assemblyman Charles Quackenbush, one of the sponsors of the bill to keep the program alive.

"We think that millions of dollars are being spent--and we feel that [the spending] has been extremely haphazard," Mr. Hargis said. Many in state government, he added, view the program as "a pork-barrel bill to provide [videocassette recorders] for vice-principals' offices."

Backers of the program are seeking a three-year extension and just over $14 million in funding for fiscal 1990. In return, they have agreed to changes aimed at ensuring greater accountability over how the funds are spent.

The Governor, however, sought no funding for the program in his proposed budget and apparently remains unconvinced that it merits a second chance. Mr. Deukmejian is "going to be a critical player" in the debate over the program's future, said Mr. Hargis.

Drawing National Attention

The fight to save the program has drawn national attention because California's is among the first and largest efforts of its kind.

The fight is also occurring at a time when other states--including Maryland, Mississippi, Virginia, and Washington--have either agreed to make or are considering making a substantial investment in educational technology.

"I think it's worth watching because California is so often regarded as a model" for the rest of the country, said James A. Mecklenburger, director of the National School Boards Association's Institute for the Transfer of Technology to Education.

Under the current program, school districts can apply for grants ranging from $8,000 for elementary-school projects to $12,000 for high-school projects to experiment with computers and other technology.

"In the long run, those grants had a much greater impact on the small rural schools than in the large urban districts," said Donald A. Penland, the technology coordinator for the San Jose Unified School District.

Mr. Penland, who was once a member of the state committee that reviewed districts' grant applications, said one rural county used its grant and matching local contributions to buy one computer for every three students.

"Basically, every kid had some access to a computer," he said.

Although in the initial stages of the program "the big push was to get hardware into the schools," Mr. Penland said, in later years, applicants were required to focus on teacher training programs in order to obtain grants.

"All in all, it was an excellent idea," he said.

Program funds also have been used to establish a network of six "model technology schools" to encourage innovation in the use of computers, video, and other electronic aids.

Model Schools

Although each of the centers takes a different approach to incorporating technology in the classroom--one, for example, focuses on teaching language arts--they all study how technology can improve student achievement, establish communications between home and school, and streamline school administration.

Under the model-schools program, each school also is paired with a research institution that evaluates the outcomes of the experimentation.

"There has been a tremendous amount of accountability on our part," said Gary Carnow, director of the project at the Alhambra City & High School District.

The model schools were to receive $500,000 a year for five years, an amount which some critics have called excessive.

But, Mr. Carnow said, the money does not stretch very far when training and other overhead costs are taken into account.

He added that at Alhambra--where students experiment with lap-top computers, use multimedia software programs to write term papers, and employ computer simulations in science and mathematics--"there's a feeling you don't get in an average elementary school or a high school."

Still, he conceded, "it's a high-risk program and it can be a political football at times."

Emphasis on Accountability

Supporters of the California program--who include lawmakers from both parties and the state Business Roundtable's education task force--agree that greater accountability and an emphasis on long-range planning are the keys to winning Governor Deukmejian's support. A study by the state's legislative analyst pointed out the pro4gram's deficiencies in those areas.

According to the report, more than 4,900 schools, or about two-thirds of the total in the state, have received grants under the program. But the analysis concluded that "there are no state-level data to determine the impact of the educational-technology program in terms of educational outcomes."

"There's been no evaluation because there was no evaluation called for in the legislation," noted Anne McKinney, the Governor's education adviser.

The legislative report also faulted the state education department for failing to keep track of how the grants were spent. The failure to do so, it said, "constitutes a significant weakness in the department's administration of the program."

The report also said that black and Hispanic students and, contrary to Mr. Penland's observation, those from rural areas appeared to have been slighted in the grants process.

Analyses of Spending

The program's proponents say a provision in the reauthorization bill that would require detailed analyses of future spending should quiet anxieties about accountability.

In addition, lawmakers are debating a change in the program's governance. Although the Assembly version of the bill would maintain the existing advisory committee that oversees spending, the Senate version would increase the role of business and higher education and place increased emphasis on long-range planning.

The program's supporters argue that it must be extended to keep the state competitive nationally.

California now ranks 27th nationally in terms of computers per student, a standing that "is not good enough," said Senator Rebecca Morgan, a Republican sponsor of the bill.

The bill's bipartisan backing should improve its chances of passing, a spokesman for Senator Morgan noted.

"This is traditionally a Democratic program," the spokesman said. ''This time, we have a Republican carrying the ball on this and carrying it aggressively."

The recent announcement that state revenues are higher than originally anticipated also bodes well for the bill, which is pending in the finance committees of both legislative chambers.

Officials in the state education department say they are hopeful that Mr. Deukmejian can be persuaded to back the program.

"We'd like to see an augmentation, but at a minimum we would like to continue the base program," said Gary L. Longholm, director of department's office of government affairs. "We'd like to see $14.2 million."

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