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In a move that is expected to encourage school districts to develop local distance-learning programs, a New Jersey regulatory board has given its blessing to a telephone company's plan to deploy a unique statewide fiber-optic-based phone network.

The state Board of Regulatory Commissioners agreed last month to allow New Jersey Bell to build a $1.5 billion fiber network by 2010 in exchange for rate-increase concessions.

The decision touched off a round of similar proposals by companies in Connecticut and other neighboring states that would like to follow suit.

In addition to serving as conduits for high-quality video signals, fiber lines could permit such educational uses of the telephone system as instant access to computer and library data from the home.

The Satellite Educational Resources Consortium has scheduled a series of interactive video and audio conferences that will allow local school officials to interact with nationally recognized leaders in school reform.

SERC, a South Carolina-based alliance of public broadcasters and chief state school officers, is undertaking the project with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Public Broadcasting Service.

The video conferences will allow educators in the field to discuss theories on site-based management with such prominent reformers as Adam Urbanski, the head of the Rochester, N.Y., teachers' union, and Linda Darling-Hammond, the director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University.

The smaller audio conferences, together with a computer-network service established
by SERC, will allow local educators to continue the discussions and prepare for future broadcasts.

The first video conference took place this week, but others are scheduled on a monthly basis through April.

Schools that wish to serve as host sites for the conferences, thereby making their staffs eligible to participate in the program, should call SERC at (803) 252-2782.

The Council of Chief State School Officers has been awarded a $345,000 grant from the U.S. Commerce Department to lead a national assessment of the educational use of telecommunications.

The grant was given this month by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is funding the study in collaboration with the U.S. Education Department's office of educational research and improvement.--P.W.

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