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Whittle Fights To Open Door for Channel One in N.Y.

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Eager to increase the market for Channel One in the nation's two most populous states, Whittle Communications is heavily lobbying legislators and regents in New York State to overturn a ban on the program there and warily watching the progress of yet another bill to ban the program in California.

Meanwhile, a California school district that won a court battle with the state schools superintendent over the right to use the classroom news show now has taken steps to cancel it.

The New York State board of regents barred Channel One from public schools there in 1989, citing the presence of two minutes of commercials in the 12-minute daily program. The regents acted shortly after the media entrepreneur Christopher Whittle announced he would launch the in-school satellite news and advertising system nationwide in the spring of 1990.

California officials sought to keep public schools in that state from signing up for the service by threatening to withhold state funding for the portion of each day's Channel One broadcast devoted to advertising.

A few schools signed contracts to receive the program anyway, prompting the ongoing legal battle in which Whittle has so far succeeded in preventing a total ban in California.

Despite the battles with educators and lawmakers, Channel One has become a major focus of Whittle's operations. Today, it is shown in about 12,000 middle schools and high schools nationwide.

Whittle typically signs schools to a three-year contract under which the media company donates a satellite dish, a video recorder, and classroom television monitors in exchange for the school's promise to show Channel One to 90 percent of students throughout 90 percent of the school year.

Local Option in N.Y.?

Whittle Communications has honed its lobbying acumen during legal and legislative skirmishes in a number of other states that sought to limit or ban the program, including North Carolina and Texas.

Now the firm has hired lobbyists to try to persuade the New York regents to rescind the ban. At the same time, it has lined up state legislators there to sponsor measures that would allow individual school districts to decide whether to sign up for Channel One.

"The big reason we have pursued this is that we have had extraordinarily strong support from public schools'' in the state that want the program, Jim Ritts, the president of network affairs for the Whittle Educational Network, said last week.

"More than 100 private schools [in New York State] have it,'' he said. "Channel One is now four years old and it is a known entity. It is much easier for legislators and others to react to Channel One now.''

The New York State School Boards Association has backed the idea of giving local districts the right to decide whether to use the program.

"We have had a chance to look at [Channel One], and there appears to be much more there than what always gets the publicity, which is the advertising,'' said William J. Pape, a spokesman for the association. "We are not endorsing it per se, but we are saying it should be up to local school boards.''

The leaders of the education committees of both houses of the state legislature have introduced bills that would allow local school boards to make the decision to use any supplementary curriculum materials, including Channel One.

Jim Cultrara, the assistant staff director of the Senate education committee, said the issue of advertising on Channel One was still "a sticking point'' for some lawmakers, including the Senate sponsor of the bill, State Sen. Charles D. Cook.

"The senator introduced the bill to make sure the discussion wasn't left out of New York,'' Mr. Cultrara said.

A similar version has been introduced in the state Assembly. Neither bill has moved out of the education committees.

State Commissioner of Education Thomas Sobol is fighting the effort to overturn the ban on Channel One. In a recent edition of his newsletter, he delivered a blistering attack on the program and on Whittle's hiring of lobbyists to work for the change.

"We are about to see if enough money, spent smartly, can change our long-established system of school governance and open our classrooms (and our kids' wallets) to Whittle's blandishments,'' he wrote.

Action in San Jose

Meanwhile, Channel One was being debated last week in two arenas in California. The state Senate education committee held a hearing May 5 on a bill that would ban the program from the state's public schools. But similar bills have been defeated in the past after heavy lobbying by Whittle.

Meanwhile, in the East Side Union high school district in San Jose, parents and teachers were mobilizing last week to persuade the school board to rescind its April 28 decision not to renew its contract with Whittle.

The district was the target of a lawsuit by the state education department that challenged its decision to sign up for Channel One. The state won a partial victory from a state judge last year, who decreed that students be allowed to opt out of viewing the show.

But the judge refused to impose a complete ban on the school's use of the program. The state has appealed the judge's ruling.

The East Side Union board voted 3 to 2 last month not to renew the Channel One contract, but the board also voted in favor of finding a noncommercial replacement for the service. Two board members elected last fall joined with the only board member who had previously opposed Channel One to form a majority opposed to the show.

Parents and teachers from Overfelt High School in San Jose, where Channel One is shown, told The San Jose Mercury-News they planned to ask the board to reconsider its decision at a meeting late last week.

Because Channel One was launched nationally in the spring of 1990, the first wave of schools that signed up for the program are now considering whether to renew their three-year contracts.

Mr. Ritts said that of the first 4,500 schools whose contracts have come up, "renewals are running over 99 percent.''

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