Ascension Parish community photo gallery for April 14, 2016 _lowres (copy)

Students use an iPad Mini to practice math facts.

A little-noticed state task force is assessing the adequacy of public school internet access and other education technology, and what it would take to make Louisiana a national leader.

"If we don't find a way to aspire to the highest level of technology in the classroom, we are going to get even further behind," said Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie and sponsor of the legislation that launched the study.

The early view is that, like lots of public school snapshots, technology in schools here is lagging.

"We know there is a pretty good gap between where we are and where we need to be," said Tony Davis, a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education who is on the task force.

Internet access, up-to-date computers and the availability of laptops for students varies from district to district because they are mostly on their own when it comes to classroom technology.

Some school districts have half a dozen educational technologists. Others have none.

More than 22,000 students lack the bandwidth needed for digital learning.

Major gaps exist in whether students have computers and Wi-Fi at home, especially in a state where two out of three public school students live in low-income households.

Among fourth-graders in Louisiana, 79 percent have computers at home, compared with 82 percent nationally, according to figures compiled by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Even when the school has the hardware, there can be other hurdles.

"What we see so often is a teacher in the classroom may have this amazing smart-board in the room but may not know how to connect it to the laptop," Davis said.

"Or they can handle that piece, but they are just not good at the pedagogy in engaging students with the new tool," he added, a reference to teaching skills.

The issue is especially pressing amid the rising presence of live-streaming in classrooms in place of teachers and a growing teacher shortage in Louisiana and nationally.

The task force, which has held two meetings, includes representatives from the Louisiana School Boards Association, Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, Gov. John Bel Edwards' office, CenturyLink and other firms.

The next meeting is set for Jan. 9.

Ethan Melancon, policy and research manager for the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and a member of the committee, said his group wants to ensure that the state and region are competitive when it comes to technology and education.

One way to do so, Melancon said, is to improve the ratio of students with access to computer devices.

In the past, he said, technology was something that was cobbled together as demands grew.

"There is no comprehensive plan to move forward," Melancon said.

How to finance upgrades in technology has sparked controversy in Louisiana before.

Last year, the state Board of Regents offered high-speed internet access to school districts without charge. But the effort died amid complaints from some superintendents about possible hidden costs and commitments.

A year ago, Edwards announced that improved internet availability could be provided to schools, also without charge, by partnering with a nonprofit California group called EducationSuperHighway. Doing so, officials said, would allow nearly 164,000 students to be connected with the minimum recommended bandwidth goals.

Donald Songy, education policy adviser for Edwards, said the group's work is done.

Now, 22,397 of the state's roughly 700,000 public school students need more bandwidth, according to the group.

School districts spent nearly $106 million for technology during the 2016-17 school year, according to the state Department of Education. That includes $86 million for technology supplies, $11 million for hardware and $10 million for software.

The department assists districts on discount pricing, workshops, cybersecurity and other areas.

"Technology in our schools needs to be as common as water and electricity," the agency said in a written statement.

The panel is supposed to submit a final written report to the House and Senate education committees by Dec. 1, 2019.

Appel said he wants a draft ready for the 2019 race for governor and other campaigns to get the issue on the radar.

"So that we can get buy-in from the candidates, gubernatorial and legislative candidates," he said. "That is my goal."

The task force has been split into three workgroups of about five members each, including one that is studying the always prickly topic of how to pay for any major upgrade.

Appel said he is downplaying cost concerns for now.

"We just want to have a strategy," he said.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.