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Jerry Brown leads call for US schools to be computer equipped

Spurned three times in the pursuit of higher office, two-time California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. drove his redoubtable Plymouth sedan into the political sunset two years ago.

But these days the unconventional governor is emerging again from his brief obscurity, armed with a fresh set of new ideas.

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Last week, Jerry Brown gathered here more than a hundred of the nation's leading lights on the use of computers in schools for a symposium. The point was to hash out Mr. Brown's plan for a national strategy for using computers in public schools.

Only with a work force educated to the cutting edge of the computer age, in Brown's view, can the United States compete in the world economy in coming decades.

If the plan survives in Congress (where it is headed next session), it will be the most sweeping program the nation has had for bringing education and technology together. The idea comes out of the National Commission on Industrial Innovation, one of the two think tanks Brown has set up since 1982 in his offices near downtown Los Angeles.

The plan would set up a competition to choose one school in each of the nation's 435 congressional districts to be a model program, outfitted with computer laboratory equipment. One school in each state would be fully equipped as a demonstration ''School of the Future.''

The cost of outfitting these schools, according to the industrial innovation commission, would be about $435 million over three years - about 1 percent of the federal education budget.

The need for this kind of a strategy, according to Brown, is to ensure economic survival against foreign competition.

In the next 15 years, he says, some 700 million people will be entering the world's work force, many of them eager to work for a tenth of American wages. American companies will be competing against exports from countries that combine ''19th-century wages with 21st-century technology.''

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The American edge, Brown says, must come from a better-educated work force using the most sophisticated tools as leverage. ''In the past we created our position in the world by substituting machinery for muscle,'' he says. ''Now we use machinery to enhance what we can do with our minds.''

This is not a ground-breaking idea, but pursuing it by using computers as educational tools has been an uneven, and often inequitable, affair.

Brown notes that private schools have largely taken the initiative in using new technology, while students from poor families often have little access to computers.

Prof. Seymour Papert of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was a speaker at Brown's symposium. He is an intellectual leader in the field. His own computer language for children, ''Logo,'' is used in 20 percent of the nation's schools, he says. Dr. Papert notes that educators often make the mistake of teaching ''computer literacy.''

Rather than learning about computers, knowledge that quickly grows obsolete, Papert says students should learn other subjects, using computers as efficient and productive learning tools.

Some computer systems, speakers here noted, are gathering dust on school shelves because educators don't know how to use them properly.

Brown's plan is meant to address these problems. The symposium here is part of an effort to begin building a consensus behind this strategy. Electronics manufacturers, classroom teachers, and union representatives, as well as academics and politicians, attended. ''That's a very broad constituency,'' says Brown.

Will Congress spend the money? ''If parents think their kids can become smarter by something Congress can do,'' Brown responds, ''Congress will do it.''

The importance of this kind of an educational strategy is affirmed by David Birch, director of Research on Neighborhood and Regional Change at MIT. The work force is becoming less rigidly specialized, he says. Factory workers are becoming more flexible, moving from one automated machine to another and gaining a general understanding of how to use them.

And the most innovative industries in the economy, Birch adds, use computers as tools. ''The power of the device opens up enormous opportunities for entrepreneurship and creativity.''

Jerry Brown, meanwhile, is content to work as a sort of entrepreneur of policy ideas. He is forming a binational US-Mexico commission to work on debt, immigration, trade, and cultural problems. He was active this fall raising money and campaigning for Democratic candidates around the country, especially Senate candidates.

He resists discussing his political future, although speculation abounds that - despite two futile attempts at the presidency, in 1976 and 1980, and a losing bid for the US Senate in 1982 - he may still have a future left in politics.

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