The Utah Legislature will be shooting itself - and a great many schoolchildren - in the foot if funding for the Utah Technology Initiative is significantly reduced after the first two years.
In the recently concluded session, some legislators expressed dissatisfaction with the response of the private sector to the 1990 agreement that there would be a shared commitment to the initiative.Last year, the Legislature appropriated $13.5 million for public education and $1.5 million for higher education. The expectation was that the private sector would chip in $10 million and local schools $5 million to finance an ambitious technology thrust in the state. Technology vendors were the fourth leg of the effort, promising to give school districts deep discounts and other contributions in cash or kind to the project.
Everyone came through except the business community. It became apparent that the Legislature had put more on the private plate than businesses could feasibly chew. Some even suggested they hadn't ordered the meal.
The 1991 Legislature looked at the disappointing returns from the expected private contributors (reports were that approximately $1 million was raised from private sources, about 10 percent of the expected $10 million) and began talking about withholding the state's contribution to the project unless the private share materialized.
Before the initiative is scrapped, there should be some real analysis of the project and of the potential damage to Utah's school restructuring efforts if it dies.
In the first place, defining the private sector is no simple matter. There is no central organization that represents private interests in Utah. The promises made in 1990 may have overlooked this lack of cohesiveness. Who, after all, speaks for the private sector? Committing the entire business community to a $10 million contribution to the technology initiative may have been naive at the outset.
The provision in the original act immediately generated controversy as to who was responsible for raising the private contribution. The Utah Partnership for Educational and Economic Development, which pushed for the initiative, doesn't want the responsibility of fund raising. It has other objectives to work toward. The initiative office itself wants to devote its effort to actually getting technology into the schools. The initiative's steering committee found itself as the responsible party, largely by default.
In the last hours of the 1991 session, the Senate put it into writing, passing intent language that says, in effect, the Steering Committee is responsible for generating private contributions and that the state funding could be withheld in the future if such contributions are not forthcoming.
Fund raising is a major challenge. Successful fund-raising organizations take years to develop an effective process and make profitable connections. It costs money to develop such a process, from all that I can gather.
What if the private contribution never comes up to the level envisioned in the early planning for the initiative?
Scrapping the whole thing by withholding the state's commitment, as proposed by some Utah legislators in this session, is an option but not a wise one.
School districts were directed to develop four-year technology plans on the assumption that the project was to continue as originally devised. The districts are now into the first year of implementation and, according to Technology Office Director Curtis Fawson, are launching some impressive programs. Many of the plans called for phased development that relies on the third and fourth years to become fully effective.
This year, funding was reduced slightly, but not enough to be really damaging. But to short-circuit the initiative halfway through the four-year plans would be the ultimate in penny-wise and pound-foolish. The amount of money being directed to the building of technology in the schools is impressive, even without the expected private sector donation.
Vendors are making considerable investments in Utah's plan. In recent weeks, IBM and Tandy have announced healthy infusions of equipment and expertise, and others are poised to make similar announcements.
They aren't likely to stay enthused if the state's enthusiasm peters out.
Something, I believe, is a whole lot more than nothing. If Utah wants to develop a model technology system in its schools, every little something that comes along should be welcomed, even if it falls short of the original plan. Otherwise, some schools could be left with a whole lot of nothing as their plans melted into half-cocked, unfulfilled dreams.