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As the Texas legislature haggled last spring over a sweeping reform of the state's education laws, every comma and clause of the proposed legislation was distributed to homes across the Lone Star State on the Internet, courtesy of the 800,000 members of the state PTA.

Using computer services donated by Onramp Access Inc., an Austin-based provider of Internet services, the PTA created its own home page on the World Wide Web containing drafts of the bill and other information for parents.

The Internet gives one of the nation's largest PTA chapters a direct electronic link to the homes of many members, says Bill Cox, one of the organization's directors and its technology consultant.

"We wanted to have a quick vehicle to get the information out," he says, "and we discovered that quite a few people had Internet access through one of the commercial services like America Online or Prodigy."

Many parents also are tied into the Texas Education Network, a state-run service that provides educators and students with Internet access for a $5 annual fee. "Quite a few families have accounts in their childrens' names," Cox notes.

The home page has more than proved its worth by reducing the number of telephone inquiries to the state PTA office. It's also made it easier for parents to discuss education policy.

The Texas PTA's experience is indicative of the ways in which inventive parents are just beginning to use telecommunications to provide timely information about schools directly to the home.

An Unofficial Channel

In some cases, the Internet provides a conduit to deliver information independently of officially sanctioned news. Cox said that while that's less likely at the state level, it is certainly true for many of the 2,700 local PTA affiliates in Texas with their own home pages. "That's where you definitely get the direct line bypassing the administration and bypassing the formal channels," Cox says.

Joseph Campbell, a father of two students in the Howard County, Md., schools, began using the Internet to provide information the local administration was not, but he now also finds it an excellent way to work with local officials.

A comprehensive review of educational software that he and several other members of the Worthington Elementary School technology committee posted on the Internet, for example, grew out of frustration with perceived bureaucratic lethargy.

When his daughters enrolled at Worthington three years ago, he found many computers but little effective software. To fill that gap, the school's technology committee itself developed a comparative guide to educational products.

"It turned out that the county educational technology office was also working on building up a big list of Macintosh software," Campbell says. "But because communication was nonexistent, a lot of the parents did not know what was available."

He discovered, however, that officials in the educational technology office were on the Internet and began to have e-mail conversations with them and share ideas, a practice that continues today.

Both Cox and Campbell say the Internet's worldwide reach opens new lines of communications for parents. Cox, a father of two, has exchanged e-mail with a counterpart in Australia, and Campbell discovered that a college friend he had not seen in 10 years had copied the software guide.

Talk of the Town

But not all parents, and certainly not all schools, are ready for the information age, as the developer of Weston, a planned community in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has discovered to its chagrin.

Noting that the community has an unusually high percentage of home computers, Arvida, the developer, launched its own home page. The page, called TownTalk, has a section that allows parents to communicate with one another and with schools.

Claudia Troisi, an Arvida vice president and TownTalk's general manager, considers launching TownTalk to be "one of the greatest things that I have worked on in my career." Yet she admits to being disappointed with educators who are afraid of the system or don't understand how to use it and with parents who fail to take advantage of it.

While Arvida has made TownTalk an open system, allowing parents to develop whatever content they choose, Troisi says that they seem to view it as the developer's job to ensure that the information on the network is timely and valuable. The parents' apparent disinterest in shaping the content shows "a fundamental lack of responsibility," she says.

And even though the schools in the development are technologically advanced, teachers and administrators seem only dimly aware of how to use even basic e-mail. Some teachers have even criticized colleagues who are technologically adept.

"Knowing full well that TownTalk was not meant to be a teaching tool--it was designed as a communications tool--I have been told by teachers that 'there are some teachers who are using the computer to teach children, and, quite frankly, we don't approve of it,' " she says.

Local school board members also told her they didn't understand how TownTalk worked when they approved it. If they had, they would not have done so because Arvida did not plan to pay for the system to reach all the schools in Broward County.

Troisi isn't sure that TownTalk will continue at the end of its nine-month trial period. And she has come to believe that American society, particularly the educational system, may not yet be ready to take full advantage of the information highway.

"It is the psychological and the anthropological issues that are at the core of the problem," she says. "Until somebody can figure out the psychological and sociological issues, we are throwing money away."

The resources mentioned in this story can be reached at the following Internet addresses:
Worthington Elementary School:http://www.gl.umbc.edu/jemmer1/worthington-ES/
Texas PTA:http://www.onr.com/tPTA.html
Texas Education Network:http://www.tenet.edu:80/

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