E-Rate Boost May Spur Research Boom for Scholars of Color
WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved a major spending hike for the e-rate policy, in May, marking a significant boost to the controversial federal subsidy program that is helping wire many of the nation’s poorest schools for Internet access. The boost comes at a time when e-rate supporters, such as the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Education Association, have become highly vocal in the belief that the federal government has a role in ensuring American children have equal access to computers and computer networks. (See Washington Update, pg. 9.) For Dr. Paula Bagasao, the e-rate program and other federal initiatives in community and educational computer networking, represent, in part, a major research opportunity, particularly for scholars of color. Bagasao, who is director of information technology research at the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute (TRPI), in Claremont, Calif., says scholars interested in how minority and disadvantaged communities gain access to information technology are beginning to examine programs, such as e-rate, that invest in making technology publicly available. “This issue is about the transformation of society. And the question is how are minorities and low-income people going to live in this new society,” Bagasao says.B. Keith Fulton, director of technology programs and policy at the National Urban League, says minority scholars can play an important role in helping communities understand the importance of e-rate funding and other national policies aimed at making information technology accessible. “The average citizen has to have access to the infrastructure of the new economy. It’s best to have that at home. But second best is having access in institutional settings, such as the schools and libraries,” Fulton says. “The e-rate program is designed to increase technology access in institutional settings.”In less than three years, the controversial program that subsidizes advanced telecommunications services, such as Internet access, for school district and libraries has attracted an outspoken cadre of political allies as well as powerful opponents in Congress and among telecommunication companies. Scholars, though less visible than the political players, also have emerged as important figures in the e-rate policy debate. Although it is relatively young, some scholars have begun assessing the impact the e-rate is having on poor and minority communities, and its effectiveness as public policy. Another group of scholars, largely individuals from education schools, is active in developing information-technology-enhanced teaching programs in school systems receiving e-rate subsidies. Research has shown that Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American children who come from poor and disadvantaged school districts are less likely to have computers and the Internet in the home than children from wealthier areas. As a result, students in poor communities are more dependent on getting computer and Internet access at school than are affluent students, who are more likely to have computers in the school and at home. “What’s important for our institutions is that they build the capacity to do the research,” Bagasao says.Considered the nation’s “premier Latino think tank,” TPRI has examined information technology issues since 1986, according to Bagasao. TPRI, is affiliated with the Claremont Graduate University and the University of Texas-Austin. Last year, Dr. Anthony Wilhelm, the former TPRI director of information technology research, and TPRI fellow Maria del Refugio Gutierrez produced a policy brief titled “How Will the E-Rate Impact Latinos?” The brief, which the institute published, concluded that decreases in e-rate funding would force many schools to postpone or scale back ongoing technology projects. “Expecting to receive discounts on advanced telecommunications services, Latino-serving schools and libraries throughout the United States have already developed plans for how they will use their e-rate savings to enhance the telecommunications capabilities of their communities,” according to the brief. Established by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the e-rate program provides discounts to libraries and schools for telecommunications services, such as Internet access, e-mail, telephone, and distance learning technologies. Discounts for qualified schools and libraries range from 20 to 90 percent, with the largest discounts going to institutions serving the poorest communities. Program funding is raised through charges on interstate telecommunication carriers, such as the Bell telephone companies. In 1998, having weathered heavy criticism from conservatives in Congress, FCC commissioners slashed e-rate funding from a $2.25 billion cap to $1.9 billion for an 18-month period. The FCC decision in May will allow the agency to spend $2.25 billion on the program over a 12-month period beginning this month.Congressional opponents, however, are pushing legislation to either kill the program or reduce its funding. Annual subsidies for school systems, such as Cleveland and Milwaukee, have been as much as $20 million, according to officials. Mark Lloyd, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Civil Rights Forum on Communications, credits Black organizations, such as the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, for launching initiatives designed to expose low-income minorities to computers and the Internet. He says that scholars at historically Black colleges and universities are eager to get involved with programs, such as e-rate, but adds that with the struggles to get their campuses wired, many faculty members and administrators are stymied by a lack of resources. “I think there is some frustration by those in the [HBCU] academic community. HBCUs are still struggling for funds,” Lloyd says, adding that the e-rate program should be expanded to subsidize community colleges, HBCUs, and community technology centers. As co-director of the Center for Learning Technologies in Urban Schools, Dr. Louis Gomez is helping lead a science and math curriculum development project in the Detroit and Chicago schools. An associate professor of learning sciences at Northwestern University, Gomez says the curriculum depends substantially on students and teachers having computers and Internet access to complete the work. Data for some student science research can only be obtained from the Internet, according to Gomez.“We choose the participating schools based on the sophistication of their IT infrastructure,” Gomez says. Gomez is an enthusiastic supporter of e-rate funding because the impact on school districts, such as Chicago and Detroit, is allowing him and his fellow researchers to pursue innovative curriculum projects. The Chicago-Detroit school project is a four-yea program funded by National Science Foundation. “The biggest challenge [for school districts] is finding a viable funding mechanism for basic technology infrastructure needs,” Gomez says.“You can’t have a complex [IT] infrastructure without an extraordinary investment.”
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