Higher Education Digital Opportunity Bill Faces Uncertain FutureLast summer, congressional legislation earmarking more than a billion dollars to minority-serving institutions to help them upgrade their computing and information infrastructures seemed to have sure prospects following its passage by the U.S. Senate and the House Science Committee. But since the fall, the legislation has languished in the House Education and the Workforce Committee, which had yet to take up the measure before the holiday break. With the second half of the 108th Congress just under way, the bill’s supporters say they remain optimistic the legislation can become law and provide what many consider a vital boost to the nation’s minority-serving institutions. If signed into law, the Minority-Serving Institution Digital and Wireless Network Technology Opportunity Act could provide up to $1.25 billion over five years to help minority-serving institutions upgrade their computers and communication systems.At historically Black colleges and universities, the plan could bring as much as $2.5 million annually per college over a five-year period to upgrade infrastructure, including wireless and other technologies. For HBCUs, the lack of adequate resources is particularly acute because 75 percent of HBCU students do not have their own computers, according to Dr. Frederick Humphries, president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO). A spokeswoman for Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., a leading sponsor of the digital opportunity legislation, said it is uncertain when the bill will be taken up by the education committee but says Forbes is working with committee members to help bring the measure to the full House.“Rep. Forbes is hopeful the bill will be considered this session. It’s an important bill and it deals with an issue that’s vital to our work force,” says Constance Shott, the press secretary to Forbes.Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House education committee, has expressed concern that the digital divide bill might duplicate other programs and drain funds from other education programs. How the bill fares in committee and the full House will also depend on how legislators decide which federal agency will administer the program that will be authorized by the bill.In the Senate version, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is designated to have oversight of the program. Yet, last year, the NSF opposed having administrative control of the program. Though supportive of funding to minority-serving schools, NSF administrator Dr. Rita Colwell testified before House members saying that the “NSF would not be the right entity to administer” the digital opportunity program (see Black Issues, Aug. 14, 2003).Colwell argued that administering the program, which could represent as much as 5 percent of NSF’s total budget in a given year, might make other programs vulnerable to budget cuts. After consideration of NSF objections, the House Science Committee approved a bill that would give the U.S. Department of Commerce authority to administer the digital opportunity program. Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., is among the bill supporters who favor oversight by the Commerce Department. Some supporters believe the move to have the Commerce Department as the lead agency has contributed to a delay in the passage of the digital opportunity bill. In addition, an official from the Commerce Department last summer wrote the House Science Committee to state that the House bill raises constitutional concerns over how race is used in determining a school’s eligibility for funds. According to a spokesman, Towns “believes that it’s important that the Commerce Department be in control of this program.” The constitutional concerns over race raised by Commerce assistant secretary Brenda Becker “don’t hold any merit” in Towns’ view.“The congressman has been a longtime champion of digital opportunity for minority-serving institutions. He’s certainly going to press for this legislation to be considered,” says Andrew Delia, the press secretary for Towns.
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