• by Felix Montes, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • November – December 1998 •
Some resources – such as electricity, gas and water – are so essential to normal modern living that society wisely tries to ensure that everyone has access to them at modest prices. About 60 years ago, telephone services were considered such an essential resource for modern living that the government established the means to ensure telephone access to most people.
With the coming of the Internet and its conceptualization as a resource for education, the federal government has established the goal that every school be connected to the Internet by the year 2000. This new goal gives rise to several important questions. Is the Internet such an important resource? Should the government intervene to ensure equity of this resource among schools? What is the current status of this effort?
Is the Internet a Vital Resource?
Today, few people doubt that the Internet is important to society. It was important to the military long before most of us knew the word Internet. It is also important for business. In fact, Internet-based electronic commerce (e-commerce) is one of the most significant economic and social forces today.
The boom in large-scale consumer e-commerce is illustrated by the success of Ebay, Inc. (www.ebay.com), an on-line person-to-person trading community in which buyers and sellers come together in an auction format to trade personal items. Ebay, Inc., made its stock market debut in late September at $18 a share. The stock skyrocketed to the $80 range in the first few weeks. Wall Street analysts who predicted that the stock would reach the $100 range were considered bullish. Reality rendered even these analysts conservative, when the stock passed the $200 mark a few months later. Ebay, Inc., claims it has nearly 1 million items for sale in more than 1,000 categories. It generated revenue of $12.9 million for the third quarter of 1998, a gain of 787 percent over the same period last year. Other well-know examples of this e-commerce boom are Amazon.com, Yahoo.com and Xoom.com.
The Internet is important in almost every other sector of society as well, including politics, entertainment, science, technology and religion. Because the Internet has become such an intrinsic part of modern society, at a minimum it should be accessible to every school – just as every school should have access to electricity, water and phone services.
However, the Internet poses a specific promise for educators. It opens a world of information in an interactive and participatory way that can enrich the educational experience beyond what has been possible in the whole history of humanity (see Green, 1997). A teacher in San Antonio, can take students to Paris’s Louvre museum (mistral.culture.fr/louvre) and to the Smithsonian Institute (www.si.edu) in Washington, D.C., during the same morning from the comfort of the classroom.
Teachers can access lesson plans for science, language and mathematics classes developed by other teachers across the country and can use the Internet to implement those lessons. The possibilities remain endless, and many schools with the appropriate access and training are taking advantage of them. Those without access are being left behind, which creates a dual system of technology haves and have-nots. In order to halt yet another system of injustice, every school should have access to the Internet.
Should the Government Intervene to Ensure Equity?
There is a great disparity in Internet access between wealthy and poor schools. Even though overall schools have improved their Internet access during the last three years, in 1997 the gap between wealthy, low-minority schools and poor, high-minority schools continued to be greater than 20 percentage points, according to the latest figures from the National Center for Education Statistics (1998).
In instructional terms, the discrepancy is even greater. Wealthier, low-minority schools are twice as likely to have access to the Internet in the actual classroom than are poor, high-minority schools. More alarming, the gap is expanding rather than contracting.
Historically, the federal government has been able to use its power to effectively influence other institutions toward a more fair and just society. The federal government exhibited its power with the forced dismantling of the institution of slavery and also with the more recent Civil Rights Act. It has also played an important role in ensuring equal opportunity in education. Thus, it was within this historical background and with great vision and leadership that the federal government assumed the task of finding a way to decrease the current technological divide. Accordingly, President Clinton signed into law the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
What is the Current Status?
The government created the original Telecommunications Act to ensure affordable telephone services to people who are poor. The law was expanded to provide affordable Internet access through educational rates, or E-rates, to public and private non-profit schools and libraries, particularly those located in rural and inner-city areas. Telecommunications carriers must offer their lowest rates to elementary and secondary schools and libraries through discounts ranging from 20 percent to 90 percent on a sliding-scale formula. Since access to the Internet requires a certain infrastructure, the law allows for 20 percent to 90 percent discounts on Internet access and connections when the schools and libraries contract with private companies to wire them to the Internet. Overall, the average discount was expected to be about 60 percent, with the poorest schools receiving an average discount of 80 percent to 90 percent. The level of discount is determined by the number of students who qualify for the national school lunch program. The government created a $2.25 billion fund for this purpose.
The response was overwhelming. Even though the requirements were stringent and the paperwork difficult, more than 30,000 schools across the nation applied for E-rates during the 75-day open application period, from January 30 to April 15, 1998. Although a substantial majority of the schools in the country could apply for E-rates, there is no doubt about its equity intent. The nation’s poorest schools and libraries requested about 53 percent of the fund. The wealthier schools requested about 0.3 percent of the total fund.
On June 12, 1998, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), under intense pressure from congressional friends of large, long-distance telephone carriers, decreased the E-rate fund from $2.25 billion to $1.9 billion. In large part, money collected from long-distance telephone carriers such as AT&T and MCI will cover the costs for this program. The FCC will collect $325 million every three months, instead of the originally proposed $560 million during the period.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 created reforms that reduced access charges to the telecommunications industry. It is estimated that during the first year of the reforms, the companies saved over $2.4 billion from access charge reductions, which would more than offset the expected E-rate demand of $2.03 billion.
Under the same pressures, the FCC also re-examined the restrictions for application to exclude internal wiring in many cases. Additionally, it has lengthened the period of discount distribution to 18 months from one year in the original design. According to some reports, these changes have invalidated hundreds of applications and school technology plans. However, the poorest schools still get the highest priority, and they are the first ones to be funded, although with less money than they requested. They also will continue to receive the discount for internal wiring. Reportedly, almost all applicants will get less money, and the money will come later than expected. All of this will cause schools and libraries to readjust their plans. But given the current political climate, even at this level of funding, the E-rate has to be considered a step forward for education.
The Schools and Libraries Corporation (SLC) was charged with allocating FCC funding for the E-rate program. The SLC Internet site (no longer available) provides continuous information about the E-rate and the application process. Your school can apply on-line through this site. The SLC conducts a careful examination of each request to ensure that the application adheres to all requirements and that the applicant is eligible to receive the funding. Applicants must certify that they have a technology plan that has been approved by their state education agency. The state or local authority must provide a description of the services sought and how those services will be used to enhance education.
On November 23, 1998, the SLC began the process of notifying 1998 E-rate applicants about the results of their requests for discounts. The SLC is sending commitment letters in waves. For more information about this process, visit the SLC site listed above.
The SLC opened a second period of E-rate applications on December 1, 1998. Schools, libraries and consortia are invited to submit their requests for services for the 1999-00 funding year. This application window will remain open for at least 80 days, closing on February 19, 1999 at the earliest. SLC will announce the final closing date soon.
The fight for the E-rate is not over. There are powerful political forces working hard to undermine it. The long-distance telephone companies started to pass the costs down to the consumer on July 1 by adding a 5 percent surcharge fee to phone bills. This is clearly unfair since these companies already receive significant benefits from the deregulation introduced with the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Motivated by the surcharge, some consumer groups and lawmakers, labeling the surcharge as the “Gore Tax,” have expressed strong opposition to the E-rate and have threatened to kill it.
Still, the general acceptance of the program and its intrinsic fairness has prompted many organizations to defend it. A survey conducted by the Education and Library Networks Coalition found that over 80 percent of the schools and libraries in the United States planned to apply for the E-rate and, as reported above, many have done so already. For more information about this survey, see ( www.itc.org/edlinc/press/eratesurvey.html).Several national educational organizations, including the U.S. Catholic Conference and the American Association of School Administrators, have joined in a nationwide campaign to protect the E-rate. The coalition charges that telecommunications companies (MCI, AT&T, Sprint) take the savings from the deregulation that produced the E-rate, that they can potentially open a new multimillion-dollar market by winning contracts with schools and libraries due to the same act and that, at the same time, they impose a surcharge on their services and blame the E-rate for it. For more information about the effort to save the E-rate, visit the Consortium for School Networking (www.cosn.org). Further information about E-rates can be found on the E-rate hotline web site (no longer available) and on the US Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology web site (www.ed.gov/Technology/comm-mit.html).Let us hope the forces of reason win the upper hand in the battle to reduce the technology gap between wealthy and poor schools in our communities. Let us ensure that all children have equitable opportunity to comprehend the new dimensions the world is assuming through technology. This will signify an important step toward educating the future generations to understand and even thrive in the technologically driven world in which they are destined to live.
Green, L.C. “Cruising the Web with English Language Learners,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, May 1997).National Center for Education Statistics. The Condition of Education 1998 (Washington, DC: US Department of Education, Office of Education Research and Improvement, 1998).
Felix Montes, Ph.D., is a research associate in the IDRA Division of Research and Evaluation. Comments and questions may be sent to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©1998, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November – December 1998 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]