Back in November, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) issued the results of its latest study on “Internet Access in Public and Private Schools.” The fed’s most recent assessment of connectivity in K-12 schools suggests that early results of the eRate—the federal program designed to close the “access gap” among wealthier and poorer schools—may have been mixed.

Between 1994 and 1998, internet access in public schools increased from 35 to 89 percent of schools. The percentage of public school classrooms with internet access also increased during this period, from 3 percent in 1994 to 51 percent in 1998.

With the arrival of the federal eRate program in 1998, some interesting changes can be seen in the schools that actually make up this “connected” demographic.

To illustrate, public schools with the highest student poverty level (defined as 71 percent or more of the student body qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch) were far less likely to have internet access than low-poverty schools (those with fewer than 11 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch) in the years 1994-1997.

In fact, in 1997, the gap between these two groups stood at fully 25 percentage points; while 88 percent of wealthier schools had internet access, only 63 percent of the poorest schools were connected.

Merely a year into the eRate, however, this gap had closed dramatically, with 87 percent of wealthier schools and 80 percent of poorer schools reporting internet access in 1998—a difference of only seven percentage points.

While this trend is no doubt encouraging, it did not apply to the percentage of public school classrooms with internet access in 1998. When it comes to classroom access, the gap between the wealthiest and poorest schools actually increased by a percentage point from 1997 to 1998.

In 1997, 36 percent of classrooms in the wealthiest schools and 14 percent of classrooms in the poorest schools had internet access, a difference of 22 percentage points; in 1998, the figures were 62 and 39 percent, respectively.

There are several factors related to the eRate’s first year that might explain this discrepancy. For one thing, delays in the processing of applications meant that many schools did not receive discounts until early 1999. While the basic pipeline into schools could have been funded out-of-pocket, most recipients of discounts would have had to wait for the money before they could implement costlier internal wiring projects.

In any case, it will be interesting to note whether the gap in classroom access between wealthy and poor schools has closed any further after the second round of eRate discounts, which were issued last fall.