Despite Apparent Progress, Digital Divide May Be Widening in Schools

The U.S. Education Department’s (ED’s) latest study on internet access in schools found that by the end of 1999, 95 percent of public schools had at least one connection to the internet. But this achievement is tempered by findings that the availability of those computers may be less than meets the eye.

While schools in poorer districts may technically have joined the e-education revolution with an internet connection, they remain far behind their wealthier counterparts in the level of internet access per student and the quality of their internet connections. By some measures, the gap is actually increasing, ED found.

For example, the percentage of classrooms in poor schools that have an internet connection remained at 39 percent, unchanged since 1998. Yet, wealthy schools now report that 74 percent of their classrooms are linked to the internet, up from 62 percent just a year earlier.

“The digital divide is real,” said Linda Roberts, director of ED’s Office of Educational Technology. She blamed dilapidated infrastructure in many schools in poor districts for the slowness of classroom internet access, noting that many schools lack the electrical capacity to accommodate computers, new phone hookups, and network servers.

Funds from the eRate program, which is funneling about $2.25 billion each year to bring schools online, cannot be used to upgrade a school’s electrical capacity or remediate asbestos or structural problems that may be found when buildings are rewired.

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