Education Bonanza for Infotech

Putting more computers in the classroom is educators' answer to education reform

Under pressure to reform and improve the nation's government-run schools, educators and politicians have latched onto one obvious answer -- put more computers into the classrooms.

The infotech industry is happy to meet this demand for educational infotech, which promises revenues of up to $5.5 billion a year after 2000, up from $3.3 billion in 1995.

President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore have repeatedly stood in front of television cameras to call for greater use of information technology in classrooms. They've also met with industry leaders to pressure them into action.

Last October, Clinton and Gore met with 10 senior industry officials, including Ted Turner, who founded CNN; Ray Smith, chief of Bell Atlantic Corp., Philadelphia; and movie director George Lucas. In December, White House officials unveiled their Education Technology Initiative. According to the plan's broad recommendations, computers and learning devices should be available to kids nationwide by 2000, classrooms should be linked to each other and the outside world, education software should be part of the curriculum, while teachers should be ready to use the technology.

There's room for plenty of growth. Only 1.3 percent of the nation's $249 billion K-12 education budget is now spent on education technology. Also, 50 percent of kindergarten through grade 12 schools, and 9 percent of classrooms, were connected to the Internet by the end of 1995, up from 35 percent and 3 percent in 1994, according to an Education Department survey, "Advanced Telecommunications in U.S. Public Elementary and Secondary Schools, 1995," released Feb. 16.

But industry and government executives caution that the White House can only play a limited role in jump-starting the education technology market. The federal government spends only $1 billion a year on educational infotech and provides only 7.4 percent of the nation's K-12 education budget.

Education funding is controlled by state and local authorities, which spent roughly $2.3 billion in 1995 on educational infotech. So if companies want to increase infotech spending -- and then grab a share -- they must market their products to state authorities and local school boards.

Although the boards are increasingly enthusiastic over the promise of infotech, they must be persuaded to make painful decisions to set aside more money for education technology. And this usually means spending less money on teachers' salaries, building maintenance, schoolbook purchases or sports programs.

Even the limited spending offered by the federal government can prompt greater investment by local government and industry. For example, when the federal government recently spent $9.5 million on educational technology, states and local school boards followed suit by investing an additional $50 million, said Linda Roberts, the Department of Education's technology expert.

Also, the industry can make money from selling computers to state universities. The Western Governors Association has called for the creation of a "Western Virtual University," which would provide cheap university education via computers and the Internet. The proposal is being pushed by Colorado's Democratic Gov. Roy Romer and Utah's Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt to help slow spending on state-supported universities.

This activity has already generated many contracts for the infotech industry. McLean, Va.-based BDM Federal Inc.'s education technology unit won a multiyear, $27.5 million contract to supply computers and software to the 28,000-student Dayton, Ohio, school system, and Sun Microsystems Inc., Mountain View, Calif., was chosen in December by Oklahoma state officials to provide SPARC-class Internet servers to the statewide OneNet educational network.

Industry also is doing its part to spur education spending. Major entertainment and publishing companies such as the Walt Disney Co., Burbank, Calif., and Viacom Inc., New York, are aligning themselves with education-software developers such as SoftKey International Inc., Cambridge, Mass.; Broderbund Software Inc., Novato, Calif.; and Davidson & Associates Inc., Torrance, Calif.

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