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School tech money may double

Congress could earmark $450 million for technology-hungry K-12 schools this week for purchasing computers and software.

As part of the 1998 budget, Congress could earmark $450 million for technology-hungry K-12 schools this week for purchasing computers and software.

The House and the Senate are expected to recess for the month of August, but before leaving Capitol Hill, legislators are expected to double the funding for the Technology Literacy Challenge Fund, a one-year-old federal program that allocates money to states for education technology.

If approved, the Education Department's Technology Challenge Grant Program, which distributes technology grants specifically to low-income schools, could also get $85 million. Individual school districts will have to apply for the grants.

Some details will still have to be banged out by a Congressional conference committee if the huge spending bill is passed this week. The budget is due on President Clinton's desk by September 30.

From rolling up their sleeves during Net Day 1996 to the White House e-commerce policy, the Clinton administration has pumped technology as an economic and educational gold mine that will secure a position for the United States as a superpower well into the next century.

In addition, the president has backed up his stance with legislation. For example, he signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which budgets money to get underprivileged schools online. This May, the Federal Communications Commission allocated the cash for the program--up to $2.25 billion a year to subsidize discounted Net access for disadvantaged schools and libraries.

Wiring schools and supplying children with high-tech learning tools have also been pushed up in the congressional agenda. But in states like California, where children at numerous schools have to share books, some say technology is not the only way to raise students' chances for success.

"School districts have individual needs," said Jan Domene, vice president of communications for the PTA in California. "We believe that kids need to know their way around a keyboard--it's a necessary part of their education. But we don't want to see other things thrown out the door just to fund computers. We've always supported a well-balanced education that includes art and music, for example, as well as computer training."

Even supporters of the federal spending bill say other steps must be taken to make sparkling new computers meaningful. For instance, after Net Day, some teachers said they didn't have the time or training to integrate the new computers and online media into their curriculum.

"The highest priority is smart investment, which means giving teachers training and technical support so they can use the technology and innovate with it. It also means supplying them with modern equipment that addresses curriculum needs and distributing software that gets at specific subject-matter goals," said David Byer, the Software Publishers Association's director of government affairs, which lobbied for the increased education technology finding.

"However, we don't have national curricula; we have 17,000 school districts. We've lived through this, 'Gee, let's invest in technology,' thing a few times," he added. "We've learned that technology is not a panacea. It should complement traditional tools such as books, film strips, and videos."

But private-public partnerships to digitize education have garnered success in the past. The SmartSchools PC Day last November awarded 3,000 computers to teachers in Northern California.

Individual teachers applied for the equipment by submitting a six- to eight-week lesson plan illustrating how computers could be used to teach students. Teachers who won approval received one computer per five students. PC Day also supplied mentors to help teachers jump-start their plans.

"The teachers have really knocked themselves out to integrate the computers," said Teresa Hackler, PC Day project director. "We definitely targeted teachers who were ready to take on the computers, the early adopters. But even with the early adopters, they still need more training from their schools and districts. We can't expect them to rewrite computers into their curriculum on their own."