School Lobby Urged To Exert Clout on Technology Issues
Educators should use their considerable market clout to push the builders of the "information highway'' to provide schools with universal low-cost access to advanced telecommunications networks, experts here have urged.
"This is the biggest land grab since the West was opened,'' argued John T. Kernan, the chairman of the California-based Lightspan Partnership Inc., which is developing interactive educational software specifically for the advanced networks. "And we can be one of the principal controllers of who wins.''
Mr. Kernan was one of several speakers at a special daylong symposium on telecommunications issues at the National Education Computing Conference here this month.
Educators control a crucial method of access to a potentially lucrative market of millions of students, whom the industry views as future customers, Mr. Kernan suggested. As a result, he said, the schools are in a unique position to negotiate with telephone and cable-television companies, satellite systems, and other telecommunications interests for favorable treatment.
"Just by wanting to play that frankly political game effectively, [students] could be the real winners,'' he said. "More than any other segment of the economy, you have the ultimate weapon.''
The session offered educators an overview of the education-related provisions of telecommunications legislation pending in Congress. In addition, it provided a forum for policymakers to discuss how to meet requirements in the Goals 2000: Educate America Act that state and local education agencies incorporate the use of technology into school-improvement plans.
Missing the Boat?
But even as measures that will establish the parameters of a rate structure for the educational use of telecommunications race through Congress, speakers warned, the education lobby has until now had neither the technological savvy nor the legislative access to influence the process.
"We've missed the boat, for the most part, in dealing with telecommunications issues,'' which are handled by different committees and staff members, said Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.
But speakers also predicted that without specific pressure to insure the availability of low-cost educational services, business will continue to view the education market as a high-cost, low-profit "quagmire,'' as Mr. Kernan put it.
"I've gone to some meetings recently with the people in 'telemedicine,' 'telecommuting,' and even 'telegambling,''' added Donavan Merck, the program manager for educational technology for the California education department.
"It's like I'm there as kind of a little pawn,'' he added. "I feel very ignored.''
The meeting was held as legislation establishing a long-range national regulatory framework for advanced telecommunications is moving through Congress.
The House appears ready to pass a revision of the landmark Communications Act of 1934 dealing with such issues as deregulating the telecommunications market, establishing tariffs, and defining universal access. And the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee has held hearings on a similar measure.
U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley testified before the Senate panel last month in favor of a provision that would permit telecommunications companies to charge education customers preferential rates. (See Education Week, June 1, 1994.)
But most senior education policymakers are barely aware that such debates are taking place, Mr. Ambach said.
"This is critical stuff,'' he added. "But nobody cared too much in the past about telephone rates because they weren't thinking about wiring a whole school.''
Because the legislation probably will not clear Congress until shortly before the scheduled October adjournment, participants noted, there still is time for educators to have a say in developing policy.
"If we sit back and say, 'Let someone else decide,' they will,'' remarked Linda G. Roberts, Mr. Riley's adviser on educational technology.
Mr. Ambach also noted that the state chiefs have recently begun to try to influence rule-making at the Federal Communications Commission, which under both bills will be responsible for devising and enforcing the new rate structures.
Ms. Roberts warned that educators should not repeat the mistakes they made a decade ago, when they largely ignored educational-access provisions in federal cable-television regulations.
"We must demonstrate that we intend to use these resources in powerful ways,'' she urged.