If Southwestern Bell and the Oklahoma Corporation Commission reach an agreement on a new rate review process, the pact should include funding for technology needs in the Oklahoma public schools, according to the lawmaker who helps write the budget for common education.
"There's no question that Oklahoma schools are lagging behind their competitors when it comes to classroom technology. The only way we're going to catch up is with a substantial infusion of cash. This is a golden opportunity to put more money into our classrooms and we need to take advantage of it," said Senator Cal Hobson, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education.
The Corporation Commission and Bell are currently examining a new process for setting telephone rates, apparently with an eye on junking the current rate of return method. If it is determined that any new method of review will save Bell money in the future, a good share of the expected savings should be earmarked for technology needs in schools, according to Senator Hobson.
"It would really be a good business investment for Bell because schools are one of the telephone company's biggest customers. Any amount of money Bell invests in education technology will ultimately benefit itself when the schools use the telephone company's equipment and services," said Senator Hobson.
The Lexington lawmaker noted that a 1995 rate settlement with Bell included some technology funds for the Oklahoma public schools, but the full amount was never allocated to common education. Of some $30 million set aside for schools and libraries, only $2 million was ever distributed.
"I think Bell was moving in the right direction when it agreed to give that money to the schools back in 1995, but for whatever reason, the distribution was never completed. If Bell would pledge some of its future benefits to common education, it could help us make up some of the ground we lost when schools didn't get the original amount of money that was pledged to them. I think it's also important that we have some guarantees this time so education will get every dollar it's promised," said Senator Hobson.
Oklahoma lags far behind other states in the field of classroom technology, according to the lawmaker. Statistics indicate that Oklahoma is trailing its competitors in computers, internet hook ups and computer-proficient students. For example: Only 56 percent of Oklahoma public schools have internet access; Of Oklahoma fourth-graders, 55 percent "never or hardly ever" use a
computer in the classroom. For eighth-graders the number is 46 percent; For every internet-connected computer in the Oklahoma schools, there are 12 students who have to share it (the ideal number is below 6);
"Clearly, we need to do something significant to put more computers and education technology in the classroom. We can't just throw a few million dollars at the problem and expect to solve it. It will take a substantial sum of money, but it certainly won't be without its rewards," noted Hobson.
"For Bell and other companies to be successful in Oklahoma, we have to have a first-rate education system. They will directly benefit from this type of investment program."
The Corporation Commission will meet again Monday to continue discussions about Bell and its rate-making process. Senator Hobson is hoping the panel will consider his school technology proposal before any final agreement is reached.
"I really think this is in the best interest of all parties -the people of Oklahoma, the public schools and Southwestern Bell. I'd hate to see the Corporation Commission pass up a perfect opportunity to help our education system. School technology should be part of any agreement that is reached," said Senator Hobson.