Junior Senator Carves a Policy Niche In Telecommunications for Education

By Peter West — October 07, 1992 5 min read

WASHINGTON--Although he is a first-term lawmaker from a thinly populated state, Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana has already established himself as a major player in the national debate over the role of telecommunications in education.

This fall, Mr. Burns enjoys the double distinction of having written both the distance-learning section of the Republican national platform and an education-technology bill endorsed by the Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate, Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee.

Senator Burns’s bill would provide incentives to telephone companies to develop a national, fiber-optic-based “telecommunications highway,’' with priority given to extending the reach of such a system to schools and libraries by 2015, years ahead of the industry’s current schedule.

He also has sponsored another, more controversial, measure that would provide federal loan guarantees to underwrite a privately developed educational-satellite network.

As the Congressional session drew to a close last week, both bills appeared certain to die in committee. But a spokesman said the senator plans to reintroduce both measures in the new Congress next year.

A farm broadcaster before being elected to the Senate in 1988, Mr. Burns uses an agricultural metaphor to explain why he has taken such an active role on education-technology issues.

“I was born and raised on a small farm, where, if you were a good agriculturist, you planned a certain acreage for a certain crop and those plans were made five or six years in advance,’' he said. “You were taught that you had to put an infrastructure in first before all these other things could happen.’'

Sitting recently in his Capitol Hill office, surrounded by prints and photographs of Montana on the walls and a frequently used spittoon beneath his desk, Mr. Burns added that his broadcasting background has helped him see the urgency of planning now to provide students with the electronic tools they will need to compete in a technologically advanced world.

Making Tools Available

Although he admits that he does not have any particular expertise in educational policy or curriculum development, Mr. Burns argues that educators cannot afford to ignore technological progress.

“I think the role of government is to make available all of the tools to the people who know how to teach,’' he said. “If we’re going to move information with the speed of light, and in great quantities, then the infrastructure has to be in place to deal with that.’'

Mr. Burns’s seat on the Commerce Committee has given him an ideal post from which to highlight issues of educational access to technology.

For example, he recently encouraged the chairman of the Communications Subcommittee, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, to hold a lengthy hearing on distance learning.

The Montana Republican argues that a recent decision of the Federal Communications Commission to allow telephone companies to transmit television programming is evidence that his ideas are gaining wider support. While his fiber-optic bill was considered “radical’’ when first introduced, he said, it is now on the forefront of technological change.

Senator Burns’s stands have won him strong backing from some in the education-technology industry.

“I think [his actions] reflect what people involved in educational technology know very well: that there is a way to distribute our educational resources both equitably and cost-effectively,’' said Shelley Weinstein, the president of the National Educational Telecommunications Organization, a Washington-based nonprofit group.

Analysts say Ms. Weinstein’s group would be the chief beneficiary of Senator Burns’s satellite loan-guarantee measure.

Mixed Ties to Educators

But Mr. Burns has had a more mixed relationship with educators at the federal and state levels.

During the recent subcommittee hearing, for example, he repeatedly clashed with Diane S. Ravitch, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, over priorities for federal technology programs.

Ms. Ravitch, arguing against the need for a dedicated educational satellite, advocated spending money to develop educational programming for the existing distribution system.

Senator Burns said he has since mended fences with officials at the department, but still believes there are important philosophical difference between them.

Mr. Burns also has had a mixed relationship with Montana school officials, some of whom describe his record in backing federal education-spending bills as lackluster.

Observers say Mr. Burns’s standing with educators may suffer in comparison with that of his Montana colleague in the Senate, Max Baucus, a Democrat with close ties to school groups and a more consistent record of support for education bills.

“We haven’t sensed much of a role in education,’' said Holly Kaleczyc, the chief of staff for State Superintendent of Public Instruction Nancy Keenan. “But, on the other hand, it’s difficult for him because he doesn’t have the appropriate committee assignments.’'

Aides to Mr. Burns note that he has received a 100 percent vote rating from the National School Boards Association during his first term.

At Odds With PBS

Senator Burns’s satellite loan-guarantee measure also has displeased officials of the Public Broadcasting Service, which is on the verge of launching its own satellite-based distance-learning experiment.

Mr. Burns initally sought to include the loan-guarantee provisions as an amendment to a PBS funding bill.

Although Mr. Burns quickly abandoned that tactic, his bill has continued to spur sharp debate between PBS officials and advocates of the îŸåŸôŸïŸ satellite.

Scarce federal dollars would be better spent on providing videocassette recorders and other equipment that schools need to take advantage of available programming, argued Sandra Welch, the executive vice president of PBS for education.

John M. Lawson, a spokesman for America’s Public Television Stations, the trade association that represents PBS and its locally owned stations, faulted Senator Burns for refusing to broaden the terms of the loan-guarantee measure to include aid aimed at enabling schools to use the expanded programming that would be available from a new satellite.

But N.E.T.O. supporters accuse PBS of using its lobbying clout to kill a bill that could challenge its dominance of educational programming.

Senator Burns acknowledges that his satellite bill may not be able to overcome its powerful opposition.

“I guess if I had a little nook and cranny over here where I was very safe and didn’t have any competition,’' he said, “I would imagine I would be maybe opposed to this too.’'

A version of this article appeared in the October 07, 1992 edition of Education Week as Junior Senator Carves a Policy Niche In Telecommunications for Education