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States, Districts Seen Bearing Cost of Replacing Computers

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Arlington, Va.

Though businesses and the federal government are helping link the nation's schools with the information highway, the cost of replacing the aging computers in those schools will fall to states and local districts, participants in a recent national teleconference said.

President Clinton emphasized last month in his State of the Union Address the importance of modernizing computers and other technology in schools.

And he is expected to unveil a technology plan for education sometime this month that, among other steps, will call for connecting every classroom to advanced telecommunications networks by the end of the decade. (See Education Week, Jan. 31, 1996.)

But most experts say those connections will be all but useless without upgrading the aging inventory of classroom computers and making them more available to students and teachers.

Despite several federal technology-grant programs, "the majority of the responsibility for financing these projects will fall at the state and local level," said Brenda Kempster, a technology consultant based in Sacramento.

Ms. Kempster was one of several experts who discussed the nuts and bolts of paying for education technology earlier this month during a televised conference here at the studios of WETA-TV, an affiliate of the Public Broadcasting Service.

The conference was broadcast to 331 locations, including state education departments and school districts from Soldotna, Alaska, to Bartow, Fla. The participants answered questions sent in by telephone, faxes, and electronic mail.

The widespread interest showed that many educators have awakened to the need for improved classroom technology, said John Lawson, the president of Convergence Services Inc., an Alexandria, Va., consulting firm that produced the teleconference.

"We're in the business of tracking this phenomenon and even we were a little surprised at how fast things are moving," Mr. Lawson said during the broadcast.

Funding Sources

The panelists noted some bright spots for state and local governments faced with the daunting task of paying for those improvements.

Businesses, and state agencies such as public utilities commissions, which regulate the telecommunications industry, have taken an interest in education reform, the experts said. So, too, have philanthropies.

Although foundations generally do not provide money for technology alone, many will support curriculum-reform plans that incorporate technology, said Arlene Krebs, the author of the Distance Learning Funding Sourcebook.

She pointed out that many corporate foundations are also willing to contribute equipment and expertise, not only to create a presence in the communities they serve but also to develop a young and potentially loyal customer base.

Many corporate philanthropies seek to focus their giving on a specific cause or area, such as help for disabled students, said Rayna Aylwood, executive director of the Mitsubishi Electric American Foundation, based in Washington.

"They're looking for showcases for their products, and the classroom is ideal," he said.

Ms. Kempster emphasized that in preparing grant applications, educators should devise a balanced plan for technology development that divides spending equally among three categories: professional development for teachers, hardware and infrastructure, and the purchase or development of high-quality courseware.

But the need to upgrade schools reaches far beyond acquiring computers and training teachers to use them effectively, said Delaine Eastin, California's state schools superintendent, in remarks from Sacramento. Whole schools must be modernized.

"There are places in California," she said, "where if somebody donated a computer, it couldn't be plugged in."

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