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Disputes Over Control, Direction Slow Technology Initiative

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Plagued by leadership shuffles and basic differences over issues of control and direction, Kentucky's effort to make technology a central element in restructuring the schools is still far from a reality.Under the comprehensive education-reform law passed by the legislature a year ago, Kentucky is committed to providing a total of $230 million over five years to enable schools throughout the state to buy computers and other electronic aids to learning.

But deciding how to spend that money has proved to be exceptionally difficult and controversial. Observers expect that the program will at best be in only nominal compliance with its upcoming deadline under the law--creating by next school year an electronic network linking every school by computer with the state education department's central office.

Moreover, leading officials still are deadlocked over whether the primary focus of the program should be at the state or local level.

On one side of the dispute are powerful legislators, who argue that the main thrust should be toward developing a single, statewide computer network offering an array of instructional and administrative services to schools.

But an advisory committee set up to oversee the process maintains that, in keeping with the em4phasis on school-based decisionmaking in the overall reform law, local officials should be able to decide which of the vast panoply of computers, videodisk players, and calculators available to them would best meet the needs of their students.

"It's been kind of like a three-ring circus," said Michael Howard, the director of education programs for the private, nonprofit Kentucky Council on Science and Technology, who has observed the process since its inception.

Even before the reform law was passed, Kentucky in many ways was already in the forefront of efforts to harness the latest technologies in the classroom.

The state has equipped each of its 176 school districts with a receiving dish that allows students to tap into a satellite-based distance-learning system operated by Kentucky Educational Television.

The system is used extensively for teaching and staff-development programs and also was pressed into service to brief education policymakers about the reform law.

Gov. Wallace G. Wilkinson, meanwhile, has spearheaded a national drive to orbit a satellite dedicated to serving the nation's schools. (See related story, page 10.)

But, as might be expected in a state formerly marked by major spending disparities between rich and poor districts, there were also wide gaps in the computing capabilities of schools.

While many districts in the state are making extensive use of computers for record-keeping, instruction, and accounting, the advisory panel said in a January report to the legislature, "some districts have almost no computer hardware or software available to teachers or students for instructional purposes."

The technology drive's troubles began when Governor Wilkinson was criticized for being slow in appointing the nine-member advisory board, known as the Council for Education Technology.

Even when the members were appointed, the council did not begin work immediately, because its chairman, Robert Stoltz, was abroad on business.

In subsequent months, the panel saw a series of executive directors come and go for a variety of reasons.

The most serious setback to implementing technology-based reforms, however, has been the dispute over how much leeway should be given to districts to design and purchase equipment to meet their instructional and administrative needs.

When the reform measure was originally debated, its framers intended that decisions to implement technological enhancements to instruction should largely be left to local districts.

But influential legislators, led by Speaker Pro Tem of the House Pete Worthington, a former engineer for the International Business Machines Corporation's typewriter division, argued that the emphasis should be placed on compatibility with a central, statewide system designed to serve both administrative and instructional needs.

Mr. Worthington and other lawmakers argued that a centralized system would encourage standardization and provide advantages in purchasing and servicing equipment.

But Mr. Worthington's plan was rejected by the legislature's curriculum committee during the course of work on the reform package.

"There was no opposition to technology," recalled Jack Foster, the state secretary of humanities and education, who served on the curriculum committee and currently is a member of the technology council.

"It was the top-down, centralized approach," Mr. Foster said of Mr. Worthington's proposal. "[The objection] was that we thought that the state should not involve itself."

Even so, Mr. Worthington succeeded in amending the reform measure to ensure that no decision on the implementation of technology could be made without approval by an educational-technology oversight committee, which he chairs.

Mr. Worthington's subcommittee has so far not given its approval to the "broad parameters report" submitted by the technology council in January. As a result, no money has flowed to the local districts to begin purchasing computers.

The sticking point has been that the report strongly takes the position that an emphasis on local control is vital to successful reform in every aspect of the school system.

"The spirit of the Kentucky Education Reform Act is perhaps best exemplified in its emphasis on school-based decisionmaking," according to the document. "Therefore, the most effective decisions regarding selection, placement, and use of technology must occur at the site of learning--the school."

And while negotiations are still ongoing, the form that the statewide administrative backbone will take remains a major sticking point.

"We're still confronting these basic philosophic differences," Mr. Foster said.

"There are some areas [in the report] that really needed to be clarified," said Mary Jane Jaeger, acting director of the advisory board. "The council interpreted its role as being that of a visionary. The legislature perhaps expected more detail."

The delay makes it less likely that the state will meet the reform law's deadline that an "integrated, technology-based communication system should be operational" by the start of the 1991-92 school year.

"That really is frankly open to interpretation," Ms. Jaeger added. "It obviously was a very difficult timeline to meet."

In theory, the wiring of such a system could be completed by the target date, but the system would have very limited uses.

"The network from the state administrative level to districts could be put in place, but it would be difficult to get software up and running," Ms. Jaeger said.

The technology council, meanwhile, is hiring a systems-integration firm to oversee the technical design of the system, devise specifications for the statewide network, and develop performance standards to ensure local compatibility with the state system.

Despite the delays and frustrations, observers seem relatively confident that the problems can be solved.

"In general, it's been slow," said Robert F. Sexton, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a citizens'-advocacy group. "They probably won't meet their fall deadline. But I don't think people are panicking."

Those involved with the program also say they are determined to make sure they have planned correctly before unleashing their huge, irrecoverable flow of funding.

"It's more important to do it right than to do it fast," said Ms. Jaeger.

Mr. Howard of the Kentucky Council on Science and Technology pointed to the potential impact of the computer network on students, particularly those in remote and rural areas.

"What we have now is the potential for geography not to determine educational quality," he said. "We can get to that point where each classroom can open up that window on the world."

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