The American education system, with its thousands of jurisdictions, is laced with inequities - most of them tied to the property-tax system of funding public schooling. Electronic technology, a big-ticket item for school districts, could end up being another indicator of the superiority of education in wealthier parts of the country.
But many who follow the issue say the inequities in this field are far more complex than measuring who has the greatest number of computers per student.
Questions arise about which schools are prepared to use the networking and research capabilities of the equipment they already have, which teachers are trained to use the technology, and which students have the advantage of continuing their computer-assisted learning at home.
One part of the equity question is spending, and on this front the federal technology grants coming through the ``Goals 2000: Educate America Act'' could be something of an equalizer. (The act, signed into law by President Clinton last March, allocates grant money for states that design plans to use technology in the classroom.) Meanwhile, the role of private companies that team up with educators around the country to fund educational technology is just as important.
If the computers and other equipment are in place, and teachers are given the training needed to use it well, ``the technology could reduce lots of the inequities that exist, because technology provides more equitable access to information,'' says John Yrchic, a researcher with the National Education Association.
The other side of that coin, he adds, is that a lack of access to technology could ``drastically increase the gap between those who have the information and those who don't.'' The country needs a comprehensive program for investing in educational technology, he urges.
But the major part of any information gap may reside at home rather than school, says Ken Komolski, who directs the Educational Products Information Exchange (EPIE) in Hampton Bays, N.Y. ``In terms of computing, school is not where the time [to become familiar with the technology] is, and it'll never be. Home is where the time is,'' he says.
Dave Moursund, head of the International Society for Technology in Education, says lots of people have concluded that schools alone won't be able to cope with the challenge of steering kids toward a mastery of information technology. ``A reasonable number of parents,'' he says, ``are trying to do something for their own kids at home.''
Mr. Komolski's organization and other groups are furthering such efforts through a program called LINCT (Learning and Information Network for Community Telecomputing). It helps communities focus on broadening access to technology. To this end, relationships are built between community-service organizations and local businesses likely to have outdated surplus computers.
If businesses across the country could be persuaded to donate 15 percent of the 70 million older computers they'll be putting up for sale in the next five years, Komolski says, ``you'd have a computer for every low-income family in the US.'' EPIE has been working on this in many locales, including its own backyard of Long Island, N.Y. The local electric utility there, for example, has donated 100 old computers.
But ``old'' in this context doesn't mean worn-out. As companies opt for ever-faster computers, the machines they cast off will still be capable of running a variety of software. ``The number of recyclable computers will be increasing, and so will their power,'' Komolski says. The donated computers are loaded with a set of ``common software'' including programs for families, like home-budgeting and educational software. They are then delivered to families. But the computer is only formally ``owned'' by the family once an adult and a child from the household have taken a course at a community center and demonstrated their command of the computer's technology.
Sometimes the computers are installed in social-service agencies or in libraries, Komolski explains, since the goal to infuse a community with enough technology and know-how to have ``communitywide telecomputing,'' with users talking to each other and gathering information.
John Philipo, director of the Center for Leadership in Educational Technology in Marlboro, Mass., thinks public libraries could play the same ``equalizer'' role with electronic media that they have with print media - making computers and software available to the public. It could be difficult since many libraries face tight budgets, but Mr. Philipo says it's a matter of priorities: ``The money has to be put aside.''
``The haves versus the have-nots is a big issue,'' says Frank Withrow, director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. But the heart of the issue, he says, is not just who has computers, CD-ROM players, or interactive television, but who is being taught to think critically about the torrent of information now available.