A Matter of Policy

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School technology has become the educational initiative du jour for lawmakers across the nation and of every political stripe.

They might argue vehemently about school choice and national standards, but they’re in almost total agreement when it comes to the need for computers and other kinds of technology in the classroom.

“Students unable to use the tools of this information age will be forever at a disadvantage,” Republican Gov. Pete Wilson warned the California legislature before unveiling a $1 billion school technology initiative earlier this year.

“Education technology is an absolute essential,” Nevada Gov. Bob Miller, a Democrat, declared before introducing his $44 million school technology bill this summer.

Those sentiments are echoed in Washington, where President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and Education Secretary Richard W. Riley tout the value of school technology at every opportunity.

As an education issue, “technology is unusual because there’s such a broad base of support for it among lawmakers and parents, regardless of political party,” says John Barth, an education policy analyst at the Washington-based National Governors’ Association.

“There’s been a strong and positive sea change both in Washington and state capitals on school technology and the potential for it to drive educational improvement,” adds David Byer, the vice president for government affairs for the Washington-based Software Publishers Association. “There’s an understanding that technology can make a difference in schools and will ultimately define our ability to compete.”

Legislators have come to that conclusion despite the lack of hard data indicating that technology does, in fact, improve academic achievement. Many states have little information on how much technology is in their schools, much less whether it is being used effectively.

So far, that hasn’t hindered policymakers’ support. Schools spent an estimated $4.3 billion on technology last school year and are projected to spend $5.2 billion this school year, according to a survey by the research firm Quality Education Data.

“It’s too great a risk not to have computers in schools,” says Michael Sentence, an education adviser to former Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld and now acting Gov. Paul Cellucci. Data or no data, “we know that they’re an important tool. And voters are convinced that computers are an absolute necessity for schools.”

But Nebraska Lt. Gov. Kim Robak, a Democrat, says support for technology would increase, and the money would be better spent, if states had better data.

“We need information to show what works and what doesn’t,” Robak says. “If we had empirical data, policymakers would be more willing to fund [technology], and voters would be much more willing to pay.”

Despite the general consensus that school technology is important, states are taking widely differing approaches to increasing it. Many of them, for example, are emphasizing multimedia computers; others are putting their money into Internet access or distance learning.

States are also at various stages of the process. Some have been talking about technology for years, while others are just starting to address it.

“States are remarkably distinct from one another,” observes Jeanne Hayes, the president of QED. “There are 51 different domains.”

But she and others say there are clearly some vanguards, and experts especially laud states that have tied technology to broad education reform efforts, rather than implementing technology simply for the sake of computer literacy.

Experts also praise states that make teacher training a top priority in state and local technology planning. Teacher training, they say is essential to ensure that the millions of dollars invested in hardware and software are put to good use.

“The issue of having teachers adequately trained and prepared is key,” says Barbara Stein, a senior policy analyst for the Center for Education Technology in Washington. “Policymakers are showing a greater understanding about the need for professional development” and are beginning to address it in their state budgets.

One state that often receives praise for its school-technology efforts is West Virginia.

Under former Democratic Gov. Gaston Caperton, the state established a $70 million, 10-year program to improve students’ reading, writing, and math skills. The legislature has appropriated about $7 million each year—most of which comes from the state lottery—to outfit classrooms with technology, and about 30 percent of the funds have been earmarked for professional development programs.

By next month, the state expects to be the first in the nation to have every school wired for a local area network and the Internet. West Virginia also has roughly four computers per classroom in all its elementary schools, and all the teachers in these schools have received training in technology.

Current Gov. Cecil H. Underwood, a Republican, has continued that commitment to school technology since he took office last year.

“Everyone in West Virginia—the governor, the chief state school officer, and the legislature—is talking out of the same side of their mouth,” says Frank B. Withrow, the director of education for NASA’s Classroom of the Future project at Wheeling University in West Virginia.

Residents supported the state’s emphasis on technology from the beginning, adds Robert J. Dilger, a professor of political science at West Virginia University in Morgantown.

School technology “has always been a politically saleable idea here. … Everybody bought it,” Dilger says. After several years of bipartisan support, he adds, “school computers are more than a political gimmick.”

One key to West Virginia’s success was the state’s decision to buy all of the districts’ hardware and software in bulk and provide the lion’s share of teacher training and technical support, state Superintendent Henry R. Marockie says.

Many districts—especially small ones—lack the business and technical expertise to undertake such efforts on their own, he notes.

“Everybody got on board as fast as they could because the program was such a winner,” he adds.

West Virginia’s achievements notwithstanding, some experts argue that a top-down approach does not work for every state because it robs schools of local control. Programs that grow from the grassroots level, they say, get more people involved and are, therefore, more likely to be sustained over time.

“The centralized model is not always the best one,” says Cheryl L. Lemke, the vice president of education technology for the Milken Exchange on Education Technology and a former associate state superintendent for technology in Illinois. “Change happens when local school officials, educators, and parents become part of the program.”

Experts say Kentucky’s school technology program has been successful for that very reason.

The state’s plan, a component of its landmark Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990, calls for a telephone in every classroom and a computer for every six students and every teacher in the state.

The program is tied to the state’s educational goals, and local districts and individual schools decide how best to use technology to meet them, notes Don Coffman, the Kentucky education department’s associate commissioner for school technology.

Kentucky requires each district to have a long-range technology plan, and districts get money from the state on a sliding scale according to local wealth and as long as they are working toward fulfilling its plan.

Districts are allowed to make their own software and hardware purchases, but have the option of taking advantage of manufacturers’ volume discounts by purchasing at the state level.

The program has worked, Coffman says, because of its bottom-up approach.

“This is a local effort,” he says, “where schools and teachers are integral” to the planning and purchasing process.

In high doses, however, local control can be a barrier to statewide school technology initiatives, some policymakers say.

In Nebraska, Lt. Gov. Robak complains that a “lack of coordination” between state and local government agencies, colleges and universities, businesses, and schools has hampered technology progress.

“Without coordination, we can’t build a base,” she says. “We have no mechanism to pull it all together. We can’t have an analog system in one county and a digital in another. Local control can’t go all the way down to the infrastructure.”

Balancing local and state authority is only one of the challenges facing policymakers in the area of school technology. Another is the perennial issue of funding.

Some legislators, as in Alabama and Kansas, have been reluctant to invest in technology because they say it would take money away from other educational needs that are more pressing. And in many states, technology advocates have had difficulty persuading lawmakers to sustain state spending for more than a year at a time.

“School technology requires a huge front-end investment,” and the enormous costs allow some lawmakers to believe that it’s a one-time-only obligation, says Christopher Dede, a professor of information technology and education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

But, he says, the ongoing expenses of school technology programs—such as hardware upgrades, teacher training, and software—are equally important.

Technology funding also raises the thorny problem of equity. Almost all states report that while a few of their districts have made great leaps in school technology, others have barely gotten off the ground.

Legislatures have struggled with ways to reduce the disparities, with varying degrees of success. Many have chosen to direct federal grants to districts with the greatest needs.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for legislators in the area of technology is planning. Experts warn that lawmakers can waste a lot of money on equipment if they approach technology in a disjointed way.

“Before states act, they need to think strategically and for the long-term,” says Barth of the National Governors’ Association. “Lawmakers need to ask themselves, ‘How are we going to use computers to meet educational goals? How are we going to promote the most efficient practices at the local level? How are we going to train teachers to use them?’ ”

“A lot of systems are approaching technology in a piecemeal fashion,” where plans and purchases are made over several years or in an unconsolidated manner, adds Felix Perez, a policy analyst at the National Education Association.

The best initiatives, he observes, are ones that “give districts flexibility to make a package that’s best for them—where there is control at the local level, but support and structure at the state and federal levels.”

Dede explains that “federal, state, and local technology programs need to be interrelated, so that rather than ships that pass in the night, they’re two sides of the same coin.”

President Clinton laid out his technology plan in 1996, setting “four pillars” for technology in schools: modern computer hardware, connectivity, teacher preparation, and high-quality educational software and on-line resources.

Federal technology funds, meanwhile, stream into schools from a bevy of sources, including the departments of education, commerce, and agriculture; the National Science Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. (See box on next page.)

The most prominent federal technology program is the Technology Literacy Challenge Fund, a Department of Education program offering grants to every state.

The Clinton administration has asked Congress to double funding for the program for fiscal 1998 to $425 million.

Another notable federal technology initiative was announced in May, after the Federal Communications Commission decided to provide virtually every school and public library a specially discounted “education rate,” or E-rate, on telecommunications services, internal connections, and Internet access.

The long-awaited discounts, available beginning Jan. 1, will range from 20 percent to 90 percent depending on a school’s poverty level, which is determined by eligibility for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program.

The discounts could amount to tremendous savings for schools, “especially poor schools,” explains John T. MacDonald, the director of state leadership for the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington.

But, he warns, the savings depend entirely “on how wisely the discounts are used. The [school system’s technology] plan is so important.”

Companies that provide the discounts will be reimbursed through a fund—the Universal Service Fund—paid into by all telecommunications companies. Up to $2.25 billion will be available each year through the fund.

There is a chance that the program could be scuttled or altered by legal challenges filed by the telecommunications giants. Among other arguments, the companies contend that the discounts cover services that the FCC doesn’t regulate; that the discounts will cut into revenues, forcing higher rates upon the consumer; and that the discounts create unfair competition because many businesses benefiting from the Universal Service Fund will not be paying into it.

But MacDonald and other experts advise schools to continue to design their technology plans with the January discounts in mind.

“We’re telling states to move forward with their preparations,” MacDonald says.

All told, the federal government pays for only a small portion—25 percent—of schools’ technology expenses, according to the New York-based management firm McKinsey & Co. Inc. The rest comes from local districts (40 percent), states (20 percent), and private sources (15 percent).

Still, experts say, the federal endorsement resonates.

“Policymakers are interested and impacted by the federal government’s leadership on this issue,” Lemke of the Milken Exchange says. “And dollars follow vision.”

School technology “has exploded because of people like the president showing they have a very deep interest in this,” adds Perez, the NEA analyst. “Critical mass has been reached. Schools need to capitalize on this momentum.”

Vol. 17, Issue 11, Page 40,41,42

Published in Print: November 10, 1997, as A Matter of Policy
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