Logic Boards, Not Blackboards

The schools' low-wire act leaves students dangling

Scores of business wonks, parents, teachers, and other volunteers are set to assemble next month for the second NetDay of the year. In March, the effort, led by Sun Microsystems' John Gage and Michael Kaufman of KQED, wired nearly 4,000 California schools for Internet access. Civic duty aside, business has good reason to be concerned about the state of technology in public schools. If every day were NetDay for the rest of the year, California's students would still lag behind their peers in equipment and training.

Faced with bare-bones budgets, schools are turning to all manner of creative tactics -- from a glitzy, state-of-the-art Sharper Image approach to the Salvation Army -- to get computers to their pupils.

Computer literacy means knowing how to get information and knowing what to do with it, an increasingly necessary skill for everything from banking to basic job responsibilities. Beyond that, a computer can change classroom learning from a passive process to an active one. The technological revolution is as much about teaching kids to think as it is about teaching them to navigate across a mouse pad. But it's also a matter of money, which is where California falls short.

The very same state that gave birth to the computer industry is tragically behind in educating its children with and about technology. It's the Golden State's dirty little secret. According to Quality Education Data, a Denver-based private research organization, California ranks 50th (dead last) in its ratio of students per computer, with 16-to-1. Leaders of the pack like South Dakota, Wyoming, and North Dakota have about 6-to-1. Our own state Department of Education claims that California's 45th, with about 14 students per computer -- splitting hairs between abysmal and pathetic. And that figure is shaky. The same Department of Education reports acknowledge that, once obsolete equipment is removed from consideration, the ratio rises to 73-to-1.

During the past decade, the problem has grown so rapidly that a recent state task force estimated that to make California schools technologically competitive with other states would cost $10.9 billion over the next four years. Absent some radical change, public education here is rapidly becoming irrelevant to the professional world.

Consider the following:
By the year 2000 (less than four years from now), an estimated 60 percent of all jobs in the United States will require a working knowledge of information technologies, according to the state task force study. And during the past five years, nearly 10 percent of the nation's universities have included ownership of a computer in their admission requirements because it's necessary for routine tasks like participating in study groups or turning in assignments.

Technology caught the state's leaders off guard, but it didn't happen overnight. First came financial drought, then a loss of vision. The problem dates back to 1978, when anti-tax crusaders Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann created and sold Proposition 13 to California voters. Prior to that, much of California's education was funded through local property taxes. Prop. 13 ended that, put a lid on property taxes, and left schools nearly entirely at the mercy of state budget-makers. On its heels came a voter-imposed limit on government spending. And all that occurred before computers in schools were an issue.

Throughout the 1980s, many hands were wrung about technology in the education community, which was divided on whether it should be pursued or was just a fad. Only a handful of educators knew what to do with computers if they had them, and since there was no money available anyway, there wasn't a great push to learn more.

Even those teachers with the vision to pioneer computer education would put smaller class sizes and more help ahead of new hardware. And the recession was not kind to education. California still spends nearly $1,000 less per student than the national average.

"In the last five to six years, before last year, you almost had to have your head in the sand not to realize that technology was going to become a key piece of the economic picture," says Donavan Merck, manager of the Education Technology section at the California Department of Education. "It's preparing kids for the work force, it's keeping companies here, it's sales of products produced in California. It wouldn't have taken a visionary to know this was coming. But at the same time, there were budget snafus, delayed budgets, and they couldn't find money to do anything. You can see why no one was going to say, 'Well, we need $3 billion for technology.' "

Now it's more than $10 billion.
Technology is not cheap, especially in places like San Francisco, with its once grand, now aged, and, in some cases, downright decrepit buildings. The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) in 1993 estimated that it would cost about $60 million to add the infrastructure (mostly wiring) needed for technology, put six computers in every classroom, and equip a few laboratories. The money simply is not there.

So, SFUSD has taken a lesson from the Salvation Army.
Ray Porter used to be a teacher. Now he spends most days directing traffic in a couple of classrooms that have become a makeshift warehouse of computer parts. Porter and his flock of volunteers take in computer discards from various business offices, tinker and fix them up, and pass them out to students.

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