TECHNOLOGY is moving into America's classrooms at an unsteady pace as states adopt a patchwork of new programs. In some cases, strong leadership or innovative funding is bringing changes to schools in areas rarely considered technological or economic hotbeds.
In West Virginia, Gov. Gaston Caperton (D) has pushed for the use of technology in education throughout his six years in office. So far, 12,000 computer work stations have been installed in elementary schools, and this fall the state teamed with Bell Atlantic to begin a program called ``World School,'' designed to eventually give its public schools access to the Internet.
``From kindergarten, every student learns to read, write, and do arithmetic on a computer,'' says Governor Caperton, touting his state's technological advances.
West Virginia's program is being paid for with proceeds from the state lottery, plus donations of time and equipment from companies like Bell Atlantic.
While other states are experimenting with different programs, funding methods vary. In Iowa, for example, Gov. Terry Branstad (R) persuaded the Legislature five years ago to finance a new fiber-optic system for education and other services.
The state has a long involvement with ``distance learning,'' which connects teachers and students through telecommunications. So far, only 50 high schools are hooked up to the new fiber-optic network, but the state has negotiated contracts to expand that to 500 schools - both secondary and elementary.
Missouri, on the other hand, has made strides in equipping its schools with satellite hookups and other technological infrastructure. Its main source of funding has been a tax on video cassette rentals.
Meanwhile, Texas has for a number of years included in its annual education budget $30 per pupil for technology. The money goes in a variety of directions: professional development for teachers who use computers in their classrooms, special software projects (such as programs aimed at English-as-a-second-language students), and the statewide telecommunications network, which has 35,000 teachers on-line on a regular basis. Local school districts also receive funding for new equipment.
A major new impetus for states hoping to wire their classrooms comes from the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, says Frank Withrow, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. Signed last March by President Clinton, the act provides grant money to states that draw up plans for integrating technology into their schools. Most states are busily devising such plans, which include ``a variety of funding mechanisms,'' Mr. Withrow says.
Georgia is another state that allocates lottery income to technology for education, to the tune of about $90 million a year, Withrow says. The state has a satellite network connecting 200 ``distance learning sites.'' North Carolina's Legislature has earmarked sizable amounts - $42 million this year - for computer and telecommunications capabilities in its schools. Adding to the list of states is Kentucky, which is recognized as a leader in education reform and technology.
Another source of funding, Withrow says, are certain ``overcharges'' that result when telephone companies charge the public higher rates than state public-utility commissions ultimately allow. In those cases, the companies have to return the overcharges to the public, and in some areas they are designated for public education. California, for example, is getting over $40 million to use for wiring public schools for computers and telecommunications.
Withrow cautions, however, that not every state has the resources to compete in the technological arena. He advocates regional, multistate ``compacts'' embracing large and small states. The latter, he says, may lack the tax and population bases to support big investments in computer networks or the development of new educational programming. ``There are clear economies of scale for this kind of technology,'' he says.
One example of a program that crosses state borders is the Massachusetts Corporation for Educational Telecommunications (MCET), a quasi-public company that was established by state law in 1982. (See related article, next page.) MCET's interactive TV programming, with one-way video and two-way audio, is currently being picked up by schools in 37 other states. Its offerings range from writing workshops to an extensive series on the Human Genome project. A number of MCET programs focus on teacher training, such as ways to break through students' negative preconceptions about science.
Withrow also cautions that ``it's a mistake to talk about only one technology, since all are converging as we move to digital formats.''
Computer signals can be broadcast like television signals, he observes, and future networking will be wireless. That will broaden electronic horizons for sparsely populated, outlying states like Alaska or Montana.
``I see a convergence of technology,'' says John Philipo, head of the Center for Leadership in Educational Technology, a nonprofit research group based in Marlboro, Mass. CD-ROM technology is attracting creative talent from the television industry, and computer-software designers have a role in nearly all the new technologies. Educators, Mr. Philipo says, should think of information media as another essential utility their buildings can't function without - like water, lights, or heat.
The move toward making computers and communications networks an integral part of learning is ``playing out across the country,'' says Linda Roberts, chief technology adviser to Education Secretary Richard Riley. She mentions, for example, a recent trip to Ohio, where she saw ``very exciting'' projects under way to wire classrooms across the state and invest in teacher training to use the new electronic capabilities.
Ms. Roberts acknowledges that these are expensive undertakings at a time of continuing fiscal austerity, and that some of the money could be pouring into technology that may soon be outdated. But the same could be said of current huge expenditures on textbooks, which quickly become dated in a changing world, she says.
Above all, Roberts says, states and localities shouldn't think of technology as a ``one-time investment.'' Their thinking should be ``strategic'' and long-term, she says, and states that devote a set amount of their yearly budget to technology, like Texas, could be in the best position to keep pace as new generations of educational technology arrive.