Utah's Education Technology Initiative has enormous potential, but it also has many problems - particularly in its mandate to raise money from the private sector - a consultant advised the ETI Steering Committee.

Joel P. Smith, senior counsel of John Grenzebach and Associates Inc., a Chicago consulting firm, outlined concerns in a letter to the steering committee. He was hired to study the details of ETI and determine how best the Utah project could reach its objectives of putting up to $200 million in technology into Utah schools over the next few years.In particular, Smith was asked to advise the steering committee and a related finance committee how to raise $10 million in private donations for the technology program.

Members of the ETI steering and finance committees already are working on resolving some of the obstacles to private participation in the technology effort.

"We want to build upon the efforts that have been accomplished to date but structure school district and college projects in such a way that business can be supportive," said Robert Garff, finance committee chairman. Businesspeople want assurance that their contribution will buy improvement in student performance, he said. They want goals that are clear and they want specific, verifiable commitments from educators and vendors.

Rep. Richard Bradford, R-Sandy, chairman of the ETI Steering Committee, also acknowledged that refinements will continue on the framework that has been developed. Already there are some visible results from the technological infusion that began this fall, he said, and "cooperation between educators and technology vendors has improved significantly."

To date, Bradford said, colleges of education and the state's 40 school districts have completed their initial planning and more than 130 technology vendors have been approved to participate.

Utah's Legislature appropriated $15 million in the 1990 session to initiate the technology project. School districts were to provide a one-third match, primarily in in-kind services, and the business community was to provide a two-thirds match, or $10 million.

The private contribution to the initiative has been a thorny matter all along. The legislation charged the state technology office with being in charge of the fund raising, with assistance from its parent organization, the Utah Partnership for Educational and Economic Development. The bill did not provide a mechanism, however, for actual fund raising, and there has been disagreement as to who should be responsible for the effort.

Hiring Smith was a first step in resolving the problems. In his letter, Smith suggested a need to "re-examine the project from the standpoint of private sector donations." He said there is not enough clarity regarding the initiative's objectives to draw private money.

Davis School Superintendent Rich Kendell, also a member of the ETI Steering Committee, reported on Smith's letter Monday during a meeting of the Utah School Superintendents Association. He said the letter suggested that as the program has evolved, it has appeared school districts are less willing to commit to concrete improvements in educational outcome. As they pushed for the appropriation in the Legislature last winter, the superintendents agreed they would commit to measurable educational improvements in exchange for the technology.

Reality has come home to roost, Kendell told the Deseret News, as the districts try to identify how they can deliver on those promises. If, for instance, technology money is spread equally among all the schools in a district, the potential for across-the-board improvement is not as great, while if the resources are concentrated in particular programs, improvement could be significant but limited to children in those special programs.

Kendell told fellow superintendents Monday that the project "is still go," but the agencies involved in the project, including the districts themselves, must rethink and reformulate the plan if they expect support from private sources.

In his letter, Smith also was wary of the reality of the "deep discounts" promised schools by vendors, Kendell said. If vendors promise a 40 percent discount and the usual discount to schools is 38 percent, the additional savings are really small, he said.