Funding Delays Classroom PCs

Prohibitive costs keep computers out of the classroom

Lack of funding has long slowed the march of technology into America's schools -- and while it took 30 years for the overhead projector to make the quantum leap from bowling alley to classroom, few educators are willing to wait that long for the ultimate high-tech dream: a computer on every desk.

Internet access in the classroom may be all the rage, but with 2.5 million classrooms and 50 million grade school students across the country, just putting computers on desktops may be the ultimate feat.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, it costs California $375,000 to put two computers and a printer in each classroom, including software and a one-time teacher training session. To put computers in every school classroom in California would cost the state $3 billion. California cannot afford to take the plunge.

Linda Roberts is the director of the office of educational technology at the U.S. Department of Education and technology advisor to U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley. She believes schools today are hitting three barriers when it comes to computer usage.

First there's the equipment, which is often old and outdated. Next, there is the high cost of today's Internet or on-line access services. And finally, there are budget constraints and dedicated state grants or federal funding, which are unavailable for computer purchases.

The education revolution has hit this snag because of the Clinton administration's initial launch of the campaign.

"Schools have made the mistake of investing in the hardware and then it just sits there," said Roberts. "You must invest in the teachers, too." The Department of Education is working to make Internet access and on-line services more affordable or free for schools.

In some cases, school districts have turned to parents. For example, Fairfax County, Va., has proposed getting parents to fund a campaign to make laptop computers available to each student. But Roberts says that parents are rarely an option. Instead, bond referendums, annual budget reforms and special grants seem to be the more common alternatives.

Corporate partnerships and charity have long played a growing role in getting computers into the classroom. According to Chris Dede, a professor of education and information technology at George Mason University, corporate partnerships have been more advantageous to schools than corporate charity.

"Corporate charity is done for philanthropic reasons and then it's up to the school to make it happen," said Dede. "Corporate partnerships allow for the sharing of knowledge and equipment. Companies see it as a way to start training the future work force," he added.

One integrator that has attempted to address the education computer issue is Electronic Data Systems Corp., Plano, Texas. In 1989, Les Alberthal, EDS' chairman, president and CEO, named education the integrator's No. 1 community service priority. Since that time EDS has played multiple roles. Currently, the company is participating in 125 school partnerships with 4,000 EDS employee volunteers worldwide. For example, EDS is the primary sponsor of the JASON project, a program that takes students on electronic field trips through underwater expeditions.

"We can't give students dog-eared textbooks anymore. This is the 20th century," said Carol Vail, director of corporate education programs at EDS, who relies on volunteers from EDS to serve as mentors and advisors to schools on effective ways to use a computer.

Jeffrey Joseph, executive vice president of the Center for Workforce Preparation, an affiliation of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, believes schools are not keeping track of where their high-tech money is going. So his center and Coopers & Lybrand developed software that schools use to track where their money is being spent.

"Sixty percent of teachers will retire in the next 10 years, and they will be replaced by younger teachers who have grown up with computers," said Joseph. "The whole education establishment will go through a realignment process."

So whether schools rely on the Department of Education or private industry for the financial push, no one knows when we will see computers on every desk. But as long as money controls the revolution, education may have to concede that a computer on every desk could take as long as overhead projectors to make it into every classroom.

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