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Recipients of Star Schools Grants Seeking New Funding To Continue

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By Peter West

San Jose, Calif.--Recipients of federal Star Schools grants are investigating new sources of revenue that will allow them to continue programming after their two-year period of eligibility draws to a close next year.

Spokesmen for three of the four original Star Schools recipients said at a conference on telecommunications and distance learning here this month that the $33 million distributed to them thus far has helped establish hundreds of satellite receiving stations in poor and rural school districts.

It has also, they said, spurred greater research in the field and development of interactive courses on topics ranging from Japanese language to probability and statistics.

But Arlene Krebs, an official of the New Orbit Consulting Group, spoke for many when she said that the biggest question facing most satellite-programming providers as the initial phase of the five-year program ends is "where are they going to find the funding to continue?"

A brainchild of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, the Star Schools program is designed to fund experiments in distance learning--either via satellite or some other telecommunications technology.

Approved by the Congress in 1988, the legislation targets science and mathematics instruction in small and rural schools and in districts with large concentrations of Chapter 1 students.

Four two-year grants were made in the program's first year, including one to the Technical Education Research Centers of Massachusetts, which has received $4.5 million to develop computer networks to distribute its mathematics and science courses.

The other first-year recipients--the Oklahoma-based Midlands Consortium; the Satellite Educational Resources Consortium Inc., headquartered in South Carolina; and the ti-in United Star Network, an arm of the ti-in Network Inc., of Texas--are satellite-programming providers.

All are in their final year of grant eligibility.

But, according to Frank B. Withrow, who oversees the Star Schools program for the U.S. Education Department, lawyers have interpreted the legislation's wording to mean that only the original partnerships will be unable to apply for third-year grants.

The language, he said, "does not rule out any of the partners' creating new entities," provided they meet a requirement to revamp up to 25 percent of their programming.

But serc's F. Lee Morris said that to maintain its programming his consortium would be "gearing up" to interest corporate investors in the potential of distance learning.

As part of its fund-raising efforts, s.e.r.c. announced in September that Patsy S. Tinsley, the co-founder and a former corporate officer of the ti-in Network, had joined the consortium.

Rural Star Schools

Members of the Congress, meanwhile, are continuing to push for more money to build the distance-learning enterprise.

Senator Thad Cochran, Republican of Mississippi, tried unsuccessfully during the markup of the Senate version of HR 2990, the Labor, Education, and Health and Human Resources appropriations bill, to have an amendment passed that would extend grant eligibility. The version of the bill passed by the Congress earlier this year contained $15 million to continue the Star Schools program.

Senator Wyche Fowler Jr., Democrat of Georgia, introduced legislation this year that would make an additional $110 million available to telecommunications partnerships serving rural areas. His proposal was later added to the omnibus "rural partnerships act of 1989," S 1036.

The so-called "rural star schools educational opportunities program'' passed the Senate "on the fast track," according to staff members, but has since stalled in the House.

On Nov. 17, a report by the research arm of the Congress, the Office of Technology Assessment, noted that the federal role in funding distance education has been "modest" to date.

It warned that "a commitment to a major development, such as a national telecommunications infrastructure for distance learning, will require a change in the federal role."

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