California Educational Data Processing Association
The DataBus - Vol. 36, No. 1
December, 1995-January, 1996

Looking for a Way to Bring Telecommunications to the Classroom?

Connectivity: County Offices of Education can provide access to Cyberspace.

Russ Brawn, Far West Laboratory

Look to the County Offices of Education

California lags behind other states in providing access to technology for schools. The Home of Silicon Valley ranks 48th in the number of computers available for student use. And while other states have implemented statewide networks for integrating telecommunications into the school environment, California has yet to produce a plan for achieving equitable access to on-line resources for all students and schools.

Part of the reason for the slow progress is that, until now, all the right players have not been at the table. Pacific Bell, GTE, CISCO, 3COM, the California Department of Education, the Education Council for Technology in Learning, the Industry Council for Technology in Learning, the PUC, and many individuals have contributed their time and resources to helping schools become connected. But what is needed is a sustainable governance and management structure, as well as resources, to institutionalize access and use of on-line resources in the classroom. One of the best ways to do this is to use the existing service delivery infrastructure of the county offices of education.

Representing the new players at the table is the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association (CCSESA). Organized regionally, county offices have gained increased recognition as the best way to deliver and support statewide services, such as professional development.

County superintendents oversee approximately $1.5 billion in state and federal funding statewide. They are responsible for monitoring the fiscal health of school districts, providing direct service for special education and alternative education programs, and for providing a variety of support services to districts.

The county superintendents committed themselves to collaborating on building a state-wide education network last year as the usefulness of such a resource became apparent. Facing the hard, cold facts of education finance, however, these superintendents knew they couldn't rely on new state funding, nor could they wait for it. Their local communities and schools were pressuring them to provide a solution. They knew they had to act.

CCSESA established a Telecommunications Technology Task Force in 1994, under the leadership of Dr. Kelly F. Blanton of Kern County, with the charge to "recommend the leadership role that county offices of education should play" in bringing telecommunications to the classroom.

To that end, the Task Force contracted with Far West Laboratory in the Spring of 1995 to conduct a survey of telecommunications capacity at county offices. This information is now being used to determine what steps must be taken to implement a cohesive network that will provide equitable access.

County offices of education have built and managed telecommunications networks for years that serve the school business functions of the county. Many counties also provide instructional television and other media services. With interest in bringing technologies, such as the Internet, to the classroom, county offices have had to upgrade their network operations. Many counties see the emerging use of telecommunications as a new line of services that can be offered to school districts, libraries, and possibly other governmental and community organizations. There is little question that county offices see telecommunications as their main channel for delivering services--such as staff development, video clearinghouses, curriculum resources, and technical assistance--in the future.

Survey results indicate that more than half of all county offices of education have established their presence on the Internet. These counties represent 87 percent of students and teachers in the state. Counties that do not have the technical capacity to do it themselves are contracting with other counties to provide services for their constituents. Although only about ten percent of California teachers and students have access to the Internet today, this percentage is expected to grow to 30 to 40 percent or more in the next two years.

County offices of education have invested over $50 million over the last three fiscal years in telecommunications, and expect to spend $17 million during the current fiscal year. Clearly, they are not waiting for new resources to get started.

However, funding is by far the biggest barrier to bringing technology to the classroom level. Outmoded school buildings, lack of equipment, the need for teacher training, and lack of technical staff to support school sites are problems that require resources to solve.

The vision these counties hold is one that streamlines and reduces the overall cost of networking by aggregating the points of service in the county, and purchasing telecommunications services from vendors as a group-buy. For example, the typical cost for a site to independently purchase a 56 kbps connection to the Internet is about $6,800 per year, including equipment lease and support, and an Internet port. Alternatively, Alameda and Sacramento counties, by purchasing a T1 line (24 times as much bandwidth), are offering 56 kbps service and an Internet port for $2,000 per site per year. This lower annual cost frees up $4,800 per year that can be used to purchase equipment, staff, and materials.

These county networks are growing rapidly in several parts of the state, due in part to the CalREN grants given by a Pacific Bell foundation, and Education First offerings by Pacific Bell and GTE.

Although county offices of education have made much progress in establishing county networks by partnering with institutions of higher education, other county services, and business, the statewide plan will address the need to coordinate and manage resources across county or regional boundaries. The Far West Laboratory survey report includes recommendations for developing the statewide plan.

The California Department of Education, through the Orange County Office of Education, recently awarded a small grant to CCSESA to establish the Education Communications and Information Services Consortium. CCSESA will form a governance structure that will bring these county networks into a statewide "network of networks" that can share resources, learn from each other, and seek state and federal funding. The Consortium will also establish an "Internet Technical Academy" to train technical staff to support schools, and will identify and organize on-line resources for the classroom to make them more accessible and useful.

The Education Council for Technology in Learning recently recommended to the State Board of Education that the existing state funding for education technology be distributed through the regional structure of CCSESA. These actions will also support the further development of California's education network.

For more information about the CCSESA Telecommunications Task Force, please contact Dr. Blanton, Kern County Superintendent of Schools, at (805) 636-4621, or through e-mail at

For more information about the county office of education capacity survey, please contact Kathleen Barfield of Far West Laboratory at (415) 565-3055, or through e-mail at

Return to December-January index