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Calif. Districts Get 3 Options To Spend $279 Million Grant

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California school districts are about to share a $279 million windfall from state lawmakers, but the new-found bounty is likely to put many districts in the difficult position of choosing where to spend the money.

The block grant will give each district $52 per student to be spent on one of three categories: teaching aids, building maintenance, or technology.

As school officials ponder their choices, a Washington-based trade association representing the computer-software industry has mounted a campaign to persuade school boards and administrators to use the money to buy their way into the information age.

"The money isn't designated for technology per se, but it does present an opportunity for local school boards to make an important investment in promoting technology," said David Byer, the education-policy manager for the Software Publishers Association.

In a related development, Gov. Pete Wilson last month signed into law a bill that will require the state Public Utilities Commission to transfer $17.5 million into the state's Education Technology Trust Fund. The money will be used to upgrade the education-technology infrastructure.

The $279.8 million block grant, part of the state's fiscal 1996 budget, will be distributed equally among the 1,074 California school districts on the basis of average daily attendance.

Districts should have received their shares of the block grant in a lump sum by last week, and, while some districts have just begun to hold hearings to decide how to spend the money, others have already made their allocations.

The Los Angeles Unified School District allocated $14.7 million of its $31.5 million share of the grant to school discretionary spending, a category which includes such purposes as school safety, professional development, and technology purchases. Another $10 million went exclusively to building maintenance. Only $1 million of the total allocation was spent specifically on technology.

Marty Varon, the district's budget director, noted that officials held five separate meetings to decide how to allocate the funds and that because the district has a large number of year-round schools it was necessary to allocate the money quickly.

A First Step

Nonetheless, many districts have yet to make their spending plans.

The Software Publishers Association, therefore, has sent a letter to roughly 4,000 education policymakers throughout the state, highlighting "compelling reasons" to invest in technology, including improved student achievement and motivation, the opportunity to offset the state's paucity of classroom computers, and the ability "to ensure that students who graduate from school today will have full command of the tools needed to succeed in a dynamic economy."

Although it is far from a common practice, some states already set money aside on a per-pupil basis for classroom technology purchases.

Texas, a leader in the field, for example, allots $30 a student, a total of $100 million annually, for districts to buy both hardware and software. By comparison, the state spends $150 million annually on textbooks.

Mr. Byer said the technology needs in California are, if anything, more severe than in many other states. The nation's largest state ranks 48th, according to some estimates, in its ratio of computers to students.

Some initiatives already have been launched to improve that picture. For example, the Detwiler Foundation of San Diego, in partnership with Pacific Bell, has expanded a program aimed at refurbishing used computers for the state's classrooms. (See Education Week, March 8, 1995.)

But, Mr. Byer said, while Detwiler's Computers for Schools program is admirable, it will not provide the kinds of cutting-edge technology that will help California to meet the Clinton administration's goal of connecting every classroom to the "information highway" by the end of the decade.

Richard Whitmore, the state's deputy superintendent for finance, technology, and planning, said he was aware of the interest that the software publishers' group was taking in the block-grant money. But, he said, "obviously, the point of a block grant is to let local people decide where their need is greatest."

The software group, meanwhile, held a special briefing for California educators last week at an annual National School Boards Association meeting on technology to familiarize them with the block-grant program.

"There were many important priorities that school districts need to sift through," Mr. Byer said. "All we're trying to do is just inform school leaders."

Mr. Whitmore added that even though the block grant could give districts an important leg up in purchasing computers and software, it does not represent the kind of continuing investment the state should provide.

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