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Calif. Chief Sues District To End Use of 'Channel One'

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California Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig and the state PTA have filed suit against a San Jose-area school district in a bid to end a district high school's use of "Channel One," the advertising-supported classroom television-news show.

The lawsuit was filed Dec. 18 in a state superior court against the East Side Union High School District of San Jose, where officials at Overfelt High School have been showing Whittle Communications' Channel One to students since 1990 in defiance of Mr. Honig's administrative order against use of the program by California schools.

The suit came on the heels of an announcement last month by Whittle that it will spend $50 million to expand Channel One and will begin airing the show this spring in six schools in Russia.

The Knoxville, Tenn.-based media company said it hoped to reach 12,500 schools and 8 million students by the fall of 1993 with its "Whittle Educational Network," which has already signed up about 10,000 schools nationwide with a total enrollment of 6.6 million.

The network is composed of schools that have been wired with video equipment provided by Whittle in exchange for a guaranteed audience for Channel One and other programming for students and teachers.

"We went from six pilot schools in 1989 to more than 9,000 schools [wired] today," Chris Whittle, the company's chairman, said in a written statement last month. "We're expanding now because there is unfilled demand by schools."

'A Captive Audience'

But Channel One continues to come under fire from national education groups and some state school officials, who question the incorporation of a commercial broadcast into the school day.

A subcommittee of the Texas Board of Education is expected this month to consider a report outlining legal options for regulating Channel One in the state's public schools. In November, the board asked lawyers for the Texas Education Agency to prepare the document.

The California lawsuit, meanwhile, charges that the agreement between the East Side Union High School District and Whittle Communications violates the state constitution and public-contract laws. Mr. Honig and the other plaintiffs, who include two Overfelt High School teachers as well as the California PTA, are seeking both preliminary and permanent injunctions barring the school from showing Channel One.

"There is no reason for us, at taxpayer expense, to provide Madison Avenue with a captive audience," Mr. Honig, a long-time critic of the Channel One concept, said in announcing the suit.

The lawsuit potentially has major implications for the use of Channel One by public schools in California. Already, 67 other public schools in the state subscribe to the program despite Mr. Honig's threats to withhold a portion of state funding from any district that shows Channel One.

A spokesman for Whittle Communications said the lawsuit was not a surprise and that the dispute was essentially one of local versus state control of school policy.

"This is a last-ditch effort by the state department of education," said a written statement from the company. "They are well aware of the pent-up demand for Channel One in California."

Officials of the East Side Union district could not be reached for comment last week.

Inroads in Several Markets

According to figures released last month by the Whittle company, Texas has more schools signed up for Channel One than any other state, with 1,067 public and private schools receiving the service, or 38 percent of the total.

Whittle's figures also indicate a high degree of market penetration among Roman Catholic high schools in the United States. Some 844 such schools now receive Channel One, or 65 percent of the total, Whittle officials said.

One surprising area of expansion is into six Russian schools in the Moscow and St. Petersburg areas.

This spring, the company said, the six Russian schools will begin using the 12-minute daily program in their English classes. The efficacy of the project will be measured by Russian education officials with help from Howard Mehlinger, the executive director of Indiana University's Center for Excellence in Education.

Each Russian school will get 10 television monitors and a videocassette recorder. Whittle will mail five days' worth of Channel One programs to the schools each week.

Whittle officials last month downplayed rumors that the firm was considering whether to add a program similar to Channel One for elementary schools.

"That's not our priority at this time," said Nancy J. Young, a company spokesman.

Whittle already has a presence in elementary schools with its Big Picture wall media, large advertising-supported posters placed in school lunchrooms and hallways.

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