Infotech loses out in school politics

Although much praised in school districts around the nation, infotech gets buried every year during budget fights

P> Educators are among the first to sing the praises of information technology in bolstering education. But the politics of school budgets have stymied efforts to improve the nation's schools with education software and modern computers.

To break the logjam, "the parents are key," said Edward Bersoff, president of BTG Inc., a computer services company in Vienna, Va. "They'll crack the system from the bottom up" once they see the power of at-home education software, he said.

In 1994, the nation spent more than $270 billion on education for its 49 million K-12 students -- but very little money was spent on infotech.

Across the nation, ad-hoc coalitions of teachers, school employees and parents funnel any new cash away from technology and toward existing priorities, many of which don't improve student education, said Bersoff, who headed a 1994 Fairfax County panel that recommended changes in how teachers are paid. This coalition is "intellectually, socially... and financially committed to the way things are," instead of using technology to improve education, he said. For example, the teachers' union focuses on increasing teachers' pay or hiring more teachers to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio, he said.

Although teachers believe computers are a wonderful tool for learning, "there are a lot of things... that aren't being funded," said Kathy Davis, president of the Fairfax Education Association, the teachers' union in 143,000-student, 10,500-teacher school district in Fairfax, Va. Among the union's priorities are "teachers' pay raises, class sizes, in-school crime and lack of teaching material," she said.

"The issues here are far broader than technology.... Different groups are vying for the same dollars," said Bill Thomas, chief of Fairfax County's education technology support unit. Thomas also chairs the Virginia Education Technology Advisory Council, which advises Virginia's education superintendent.

As a result, Fairfax County spent between $5 million and $15 million on infotech in 1995, out of a total budget of $973 million. despite the numerous infotech jobs and many infotech companies located in Fairfax, only 0.5 percent of the budget is spent on new infotech initiatives. With such limited infotech funding, Fairfax can't buy what school officials say they need -- 42,000 computers, training for teachers and telecommunications technology.

To make up its infotech deficit, the county would have to spend an extra $30 million during each of the next five years -- plus an extra $33 million per year in maintenance and support -- even as the number of students increases, forcing greater expenditures on teachers, buildings, meals, books and buses. But the proposed school budget for 1997 includes only $15 million for technology training, hardware and software, said Thomas.

"Technology bites the dust each year," said Dolores Bohen, the Fairfax assistant superintendent for communications. But the district also underfunds staff training and the maintenance of buildings and buses, she said. The district's budget has been stuck at $6,440 per student since 1991, she said.

Some help may come from Richmond, where Republican Gov. George Allen has proposed spending $100 million for Virginia's schools and colleges. The money would be used mostly to create a communications network linking the state's colleges, and eventually, its schools. If approved by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly, some of that money will flow to Fairfax County, which already received $5 million in 1995 from Richmond, said Thomas. The 1995 money was used to provide computers and Internet access for the district's school libraries, he said.

Fairfax also gains from corporate charity. For example, supermarket receipts subsidize computer purchases, and high-tech companies donate used computers to the schools, while industry executives -- such as Bersoff and Marty Irving, president of The Irving Group, Vienna, Va. -- lobby local governments for increased technology spending. Also, AT&T, Basking Ridge, N.J., has offered to grant $150 million in telecommunications technologies to the nation's schools -- a move that may be followed by other telecom companies trying to extend their networks into the nation's suburbs.

But broader changes are needed to reorder school districts' spending priorities, said Bersoff and other observers.

One potential breakthrough might come from an alliance of parents and the education-software industry, he said. Already, companies such as SoftKey International Inc., Cambridge, Mass., Broderbund Software Inc., Novato, Calif., and Davidson & Associates Inc., Torrance, .Calif., sell more than $1 billion in education software, much of which goes into at-home computers. The more students use computers at home, the more parents pressure school managers to invest in technology, said Thomas. "One begets the other," he said.

"If the [education-software] business and parents get together, you could see change" in school budgets, said Bersoff. Some industry executives say they see parental pressure for increased infotech spending, but they acknowledge that there's little evidence so far of increased outlays.

Another solution could be provided by an alliance of the educational-software industry with the systems integration industry. Such an alliance could provide schools with packages of technology, software and training. These packages -- sometimes called "turnkey solutions" -- would make it easier for the schools to manage, use and pay for education technology, said Robert Peterson, a vice president at Piper Jaffray Inc., Minneapolis. Schools "can't keep up [with technological advances]. They never will." Unisys Corp., Blue Bell, Pa., recently won a $50 million contract from Ohio to supply, install and maintain computers, modems, printers and other equipment in the state's schools. Also, Davidson offers school packages of curriculum materials, software, and training.

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