Roemer's Computer Plan Engenders Stinging Attacks in La.
Gov. Buddy Roemer's plan to implement a computerized reading program in all of Louisiana's elementary schools has run into serious opposition in the state and could be changed substantially or rejected outright, observers said last week.
While praised by some as an innovative effort to bring technology into the classroom, the Governor's proposal has earned him stinging attacks from legislators, a skeptical reaction from cost-conscious educators, and complaints from a leading computer manufacturer.
Mr. Roemer proposed last month that all K-1 classrooms be equipped with computer laboratories using the "Writing to Read" software program, which is marketed exclusively by the International Business Machines Corporation.
Mr. Roemer proposed that the4state spend $15 million from its budget surplus and raise an additional $15 million from private sources to fund his "Project Learn."
The Governor was responding in part to a proposal from the California-based Riordan Foundation, which helped institute a similar program in Mississippi last year.
But critics pounced almost immediately on Mr. Roemer's plan, arguing that it failed to offer school districts any choice about whether to participate in the program or what kind of equipment to buy.
Critics also contend that Mr. Roemer's proposal greatly underestimated the expense involved in implementing the five-year program.
To adopt the proposal without further study, said John R. Rombach, the legislature's fiscal officer, "the state, and especially local school boards, would be embarking on a major educational program of unproven value and enormous costs."
Mr. Rombach also warned that by adopting ibm's proprietary program, state officials would "be placing ourselves at the mercy of a single vendor without even considering alternatives ... and with very little public discussion."
Over the life of the program, local school boards would have to spend as much as $118 million on teacher aides, new furnishings, maintenance, and materials, Mr. Rombach argued in a report.
Mr. Roemer initially sought to include the state's share of the money in an omnibus spending bill. As a result of the criticism, however, he withdrew his proposal and threw his support to an alternative sponsored by the chairmen of the House and Senate education committees.
The chairmen's bill would appropriate $17.25 million in state funds to establish a "computer-based, multisensory, language-arts program" in each elementary school.
The new plan calls for additional funding because it also would allow participation by private schools.
The bill also is designed to counter criticisms that Mr. Roemer failed to consult with educators before announcing his plans. It provides for a selection committee composed of teachers, principals, and district officials to evaluate competing systems.
But even with the changes, there did not appear last week to be widespread support for the proposal.
"Our feeling is that there are a number of teachers who are saying that [Writing to Read] is not as adequate as we were led to believe," said Shirley H. Williams, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators.
Ms. Williams also said the organization is concerned that school buildings will have to be upgraded to accommodate the computer labs, and that money will have to be found to hire teacher's aides.
Mr. Roemer's proposal also has raised the ire of Apple Computer Inc., ibm's major competitor for the K-12 education market.
Jim Johnson, Apple's Washington-based director of government affairs, said the chairmen's bill contradicts an existing policy of the state board. The policy permits schools to purchase on a pilot basis either "Writing to Read" or the competing "Apple Early Learning Series: Early Language," he said.
Mr. Johnson also argued that the measure still would not allow for true competition among systems. The bill requires that literacy labs be compatible with existing state computer networks--which use the operating system employed by ibm, rather than Apple's proprietary operating system.