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Bennett Christensen, 10, a fifth grader at Danville's John Baldwin Elementary School, looks for a video on an iPad as he edits and produces a presentation to be shown during the San Ramon Valley Unified School District Technology Symposium held at Dougherty Valley High School in San Ramon, Calif., on Friday, Feb. 24, 2012. The elementary school has five teams consisting of 60 students who volunteer to produce a daily TV show using iPads and laptop computers. (Doug Duran/Staff)

At some of the better-heeled schools, iPads have become the latest rage to hit the classroom.

Fourth-graders at Quail Run Elementary School in San Ramon have used them to create digital presentations about California missions.

Parent funds bought 20 iPads and recharge docks at Sequoia Middle School in Pleasant Hill.

The Emery District in Alameda County plans to tap bond funds to buy each student in grades seven through 12 a $500 iPad.

Over at Oakland High School, however, history teacher Ben Visnick had to borrow textbooks for his students from McClymonds in West Oakland. This "textbook triage" was necessitated by state budget cuts.

He says most of the computers at Oakland High are Compaqs -- a brand so old that it isn't even in existence anymore.

A number of the machines are broken down, and there is no one to fix them.

Ask a student about school-issued iPads, and he or she is likely to ask what you've been smoking.

So it boils down to this. A fourth-grader in the burbs has access to more advanced technology than an 11th-grader does at a poorer urban school.

There has always been a gulf between wealthy and poorer public schools in California and lawsuits that have sought to correct it.

Yet the problem has become worse thanks to the advent of the Internet, state education cuts and an inequitable distribution of public funds that shortchanges the poorest districts.


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As a result, children who attend schools in lower-income neighborhoods are falling farther behind.

A recent report by the Oakland-based Education Trust-West found that because of major flaws in the public school finance system, districts in California with the highest concentration of low-income students receive $620 less per student from state and local sources than the wealthiest districts.

Poorer schools are struggling to pay for the bare essentials.

"They're not just getting less money, but they're getting the money late, which forces them to have to take out loans," says Education Trust-West Executive Director Arun Ramanathan. "All that they're able to fund with what they have left are people."

A lot of times they can't even do that.

Melrose Leadership Academy in Oakland had to hold a fundraiser to pay for paper for the school copy machines.

It's left up to parents to raise money for what are now considered extras. Enrichment programs in music and art. New computers.

In Oakland, some of the schools in the hills are prodigious fundraisers. Thornhill Elementary. Montclair Elementary. Joaquin Miller Elementary. Hillcrest School. Their parent organizations raise hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The PTA at Crocker Highlands Elementary in Trestle Glen (where Oakland Schools Superintendent Tony Smith's child attends school) is set to raise $180,000 for that school.

I applaud these parents.

But what happens to kids whose parents don't have the same wherewithal? Immigrant families selling 1,000 tamales at $1 a pop is not going to make up for the draconian cuts.

There are wonderful organizations such as Oakland Technology Exchange West that are trying to help bridge the digital divide. Since 1999, OTX West has donated thousands of recycled computers to public school children. Children who might not otherwise be able to afford to have a computer at home.

Yet the technology is evolving so rapidly that these machines are light-years behind.

Smith is exploring a technology initiative in West Oakland for which he is seeking funding from the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation. The so-called "STEM" corridor -- Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics -- would ideally help prepare students for tech jobs.

Yet there is so much upheaval and turnover within Oakland Unified School District, Kimberly Mayfield, who chairs the Education Department at Holy Names University, has valid concerns about whether those good intentions will have the desired impact.

"You could have Bechtel putting all this money into technology that rivals whatever the suburbs have," she says, "but what guarantee does the community have that the teachers will be stable enough to take advantage of it?"

She makes a good point. You can have all the technology in the world, but if there's no one to train people how to use it, you might as well not have it at all.

Tammerlin Drummond is a columnist for the Bay Area. Her column runs Tuesday and Sunday. Contact her at tdrummond@bayareanewsgroup.com or follow her at Twitter.com.