Published Online: January 15, 1997

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A Common-Ground Issue and a Common-Ground Strategy

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After splitting the difference on Election Day between a Republican-controlled Congress and a Democratic president, we voters now know the names of the officeholders who will help chart the course of national public policy. The problem is, we are still in the dark on exactly what that course will be. And in the area of education, where partisan agendas sometimes differed substantially during the campaign, we are especially unenlightened as to the issues that will spring forth from the "common ground" and "vital center" the president and Congressional leaders now pledge to seek.

While it is not likely that the White House or the Congress will permit either side to realize many high-profile partisan campaign issues, their mutual desire to coexist and be productive will probably result in agreements around a number of less controversial items. Permit me, during what Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich calls a time of "implementation" rather than "confrontation," to offer for presidential and congressional consideration a prime candidate for a common-ground education initiative: learning technology.

Breathtaking developments in learning technology carry potential for profound change in the way students learn and the way schools function. Internet access to global libraries and master teachers can expose youngsters to sources of information and insight heretofore inaccessible. And ongoing communication between home and school can involve parents in their children's learning like never before.

We know that continued rapid, radical advances in technology and the World Wide Web are the wave of the future. We know that such advances hold rich promise for school improvement. And we also know that those schools not on the train of technology will be at a distinct disadvantage--as will the students and society those schools serve.

Fortunately, national policymakers are beginning to see the importance of pledging resources to spur the learning-technology revolution. This past fall, President Clinton and Congress agreed to target $267 million in fiscal 1997 ($219 million more than the previous year) for technology programs to benefit public and private school students across the country. The bulk of that money--$200 million--is for the Technology Literacy Challenge Fund, which will be distributed to states and then to school districts in the form of grants for software, hardware, teacher training, and Internet connection. Districts that receive the grants will provide equitable benefits and services to students in public and private schools. Though seen as a good beginning, the challenge fund is regarded by most educators as not nearly enough to bring schools into the Information Age.

To secure the sizable resources necessary for the task, the entire education community--public and private alike--would do well to work together. Why not an effort akin to what brought about the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965? We educators need to seek our own common ground: jointly urging Congress to establish technology programs that benefit needy students in the '90s the same way it established Title I services for needy students in the '60s. The most certain way to realize that goal is through broad-based collaboration. The substantial funding needed is too heavy a lift for any single sector to obtain on its own. We can attain much more for our country's children by cooperating than we can by going it alone.

If ever there was a vital-center issue ripe for collaboration, technology is it. Why? First, it is an issue that addresses the needs of a broad range of constituents, and we all know how elected officials love pleasing a lot of people at once. Second, there are virtually no negatives associated with the issue; it does not come bogged down with political baggage. Third, it is an issue consonant with almost every party platform: Republican and Democrat, Liberal and Conservative.

There is a trap, however, that any would-be collaborators need to avoid, and that is viewing technology funding as a zero-sum game. We must be wary of thinking that assumes there is a limited pie and that every slice given to one student is a slice less for another student. We need to take a much more expansive and generous approach. Our goal must be to ensure a pie big enough that all the nation's needy children are amply served. Only by acting together will we ever have the capacity, scope, and clout to make it happen.

Speaking of pie, before my Why-can't-we-all-work-together? proposal gets dismissed as pie in the sky, permit me to offer some hard evidence of an existing successful collaborative effort around technology. I'll call it "Exhibit E," for EdLiNC, the Education and Library Networks Coalition, a group of 32 national organizations that represent public and private schools and libraries. Formed last year, EdliNC has worked to ensure that the Federal Communications Commission interprets the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (perhaps this decade's single most important initiative for propelling schools into the Information Age) in a way that ensures the fullest possible benefits to students.

Apparently, the effort has already begun to pay off. Two days after Election Day, while Washington pundits were still spinning the returns, the Federal-State Joint Board submitted to the FCC its long-awaited proposal for implementing various provisions of the act. For schools and libraries, the proposal meant mostly good news. Many of EdLiNC's recommendations were reflected in the document.

The kind of collaboration demonstrated by EdLiNC is the best way to secure the massive federal--and for that matter, state and private--commitment needed to help needy students board the train of technology. This task is too big and the consequences too great to write anyone off as partners.

And who knows? Public-private collaboration in support of technology might lead to similar efforts around a host of other issues. Heaven knows there are plenty of areas that could stand a whole lot more cooperation.

We in public and private education share a noble goal, we hold a common trust: the education of America's youths. In pursuit of that goal, each community has strengths, insights, and wisdom to share with one another, and much to learn from one another. Think of what a formidable force for good we can be if we combine our efforts, work together, and put the needs of children first.


Joe McTighe is the executive director of the Council for American Private Education in Washington.

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