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Lawmakers Ponder Technology as Way To Bridge Funding Gap Between Schools

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State lawmakers searching for solutions to their increasingly frequent and intractable school-finance-equity dilemmas are beginning to look to technology applications as a way of bridging the gap between rich and poor schools.

Distance learning and other forms of technology could do as much to ensure equal educational opportunity for every child, this line of thinking contends, as the huge tax increases or "Robin Hood'' revenue-sharing plans tried by other states in recent years.

Interest in the connection between technology and finance equity is most prominent in Ohio, where a school-finance panel last week received a report on use of technology by the state's poorest school districts. The report and earlier hearings on the subject have convinced the chairman of the panel that such programs hold the key to establishing the level playing field that school-finance challenges seek.

"Technology can give equality of opportunity better than dollars,'' said Senator H. Cooper Snyder, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee and the co-chairman of the Educational Technology Equity Commission, which includes lawmakers, education-department officials, and telephone and broadcast- and cable-television companies.

Finance equity is an important issue in Ohio, where two challenges to the fairness of the current funding system are moving through state courts. Similar lawsuits have been filed in nearly half the states. (See Education Week, March 11, 1992.)

But, while it spells promise to some state policymakers, the technology focus has drawn a negative response from most academics and consultants who specialize in school finance. Reformers warn that concentrating on distance learning or other technologies misses the point of school-finance challenges, which aim to overhaul the structure of a state's entire education program.

Asking the Right Questions

The Ohio report released last week focused on the technology capabilities of the state's 25 poorest school districts. Officials plan to extend the study to other districts and expand it to examine the cost of linking all of the state's classrooms, along with earmarking up to $7 million for experimental projects.

In making his case, Senator Snyder described a small school in his district where two students are taking an advanced German course that is broadcast from Texas.

"It is a very simplistic but telling example,'' Mr. Snyder said. "The flexibility that technology gives obviously provides equality of opportunity. There is no way in thunder that you could deliver German II to the Bethel schools any other way.''

Technology experts noted that while Ohio is far behind some other states in implementing distance learning and other classroom technologies, it is among the first to make the link to equity and school-finance litigation.

"They are beginning to ask some of the right questions,'' said Ray Steele, the director of the Center for Information and Communications Sciences at Ball State University and the chairman of the board of the U.S. Distance Learning Association.

"They are not asking if District 1 and District 2 have the same amount of money,'' he said. "They are asking how they can create an opportunity that is equitable throughout the state.''

"The equity issue is one that will be dealt with in a variety of ways, but if it is dealt with properly it can bridge the gap between the learners' needs and those areas that we've never been able to accomplish face to face over several decades,'' Mr. Steele said. "State after state is recognizing the potential of this.''

Previously, new technologies have been seen primarily as a way for small or rural school districts to avoid consolidation, for educators to upgrade their curriculum or make learning more engaging, or as a tool for economic growth. But equity has also been a selling point, according to Linda Roberts, a senior associate in the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment.

'A Drop in the Bucket'

Most finance experts argue, however, that technology should be viewed as a learning enhancement, not a leading ingredient in solving statewide disparities in school programs and funding.

"It is kind of a Johnny-come-lately, Band-Aid approach, even though something is better than nothing,'' said R. Craig Wood, chairman of the education leadership department at the University of Florida and a school-finance researcher and consultant. "Some kids get hands-on instruction, and others have to watch TV--it is sort of like having a terminally ill patient and trying to make him more comfortable.''

"Access to information through technology is a strategy for educating children, but that has nothing to do with equity,'' said M. Donald Thomas, a consultant who has developed several state school-reform plans. "Technology is a drop in the bucket to what the equity program should provide.''

"The major item that has to be attacked is the immorality of lawmakers who get elected and swear to uphold the constitution and then blatantly disregard it,'' Mr. Thomas said. "Technology opens up a whole new world of information and is going to change the whole concept of curriculum, but it is a ploy for dealing with equity.''

Equity and Access

But technology proponents are sold on its potential.

"Dollars are part of it, and breaking tradition is part of it, but technology is also part of it,'' argued Senator Snyder. "It is part of the process, and for any finance expert or administrator to say that it's a Band-Aid just shows their traditional thinking and lack of understanding about what the whole concept is about.''

Mr. Steele of Ball State noted the experience of many poor school districts where technology has delivered opportunities that would otherwise be impractical or unaffordable.

"That's equity, and that's access,'' he said. "This does not disadvantage anyone. Distance learning doesn't care if you are black or white, male or female, or if you live in a rich neighborhood or poor one. What it requires is interest and involvement.''

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