Computer Plan Isn't Really About Equity

COMMENT

May 08, 1994|By KEVIN THOMAS

Howard school officials are proposing spending $1.5 million this year to begin bringing "technology equity" to county schools by purchasing more computers and software.

In fact, a lot of useful work went into a report on this issue that was submitted to the county Board of Education last week.

It establishes a minimum standard for the number of computers and types of equipment each school needs to produce computer literate graduates. (For example, it proposes one computer, plus one modem, one color scanner and one CD-ROM, for every 10 students.)

It also suggests a school-by-school breakdown of the way each dollar should be spent to reach the standard in coming years.

What the study does not say -- and this is a major shortcoming -- is what equipment each school already has at its disposal.

We are, in effect, asked to accept at face value the system's analysis of what it needs and how the money should be spent. Needless to say, this is not good enough.

Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, coping with proposed funding from the county that is not to his liking, has suggested that the county float bonds to raise the $1.5 million needed for the computer drive. It is up to the County Council, which approves the budget, to make that decision, but I can't imagine how officials can make a determination based on the information available so far.

The council is going to have to ask for more data, and that may be the least of the problems in trying to unravel the conundrum presented by trying to bring "computer equity" to the schools.

First, it is probably a misnomer to call what the school system is doing an equity effort at all, since the term implies that each school will eventually have the same number of computers. In fact, it's a safe bet that even if the system gets all the money it wants in the years to come, some schools will continue to have many more than others.

It is unclear, for instance, whether school officials intend to take into account computers purchased through Parent-Teacher Associations, grocery receipt programs or other funding sources when deciding what public funds should be spent each year.

In their initial proposal, school officials have an inventory -- as yet unrevealed -- that takes into account every computer already in each school. But officials aren't saying whether they intend to continue to lump parent and school purchases together in future years.

Such a declaration wouldn't square with what school board President Dana Hanna says he is willing to support. And he would probably not be alone.

"I will not penalize a school for having active parents," Mr. Hanna said. Such a system would "throw a cold bucket of water on parent involvement," he added.

And yet, the school board president said he supports a minimum standard that would establish the basics necessary for schools to accomplish their curriculum goals. Anything above and beyond the standard would be, as they say, gravy.

The problem is that some schools are ladling on the gravy pretty thick, whether they be new facilities with a lot of start-up money or in affluent communities with parents busily collecting supermarket receipts. The resentment created between the haves and have-nots is the continuing consequence.

Mr. Hanna said that by establishing a minimum standard every school will be served appropriately.

"Quantity is not a necessary indication of performance," he said, adding that too often the public gets caught up in what a new school looks like and doesn't look below the surface.

"We've got to get beyond that quantitative 'wow' we feel when we see a new school," he said. "We need to look into the qualitative reality of what is needed and what works."

If that's true, school officials need to drop the pretense: Using the catch phrase "technology equity" and playing on the public desire to eliminate disparities between schools may be a nifty way to pry loose some extra funds, but that is not precisely what is at work here.

School officials need to clarify what they are trying to achieve. They can start by releasing the inventory of each school's computers and software. Then, the public can judge for itself whether the school system's plan will meet the basics, and whether the basics are good enough.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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