Nearly every public school in America now has access to the internet, according to a study released Feb. 16 by the U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES). But the type of access varies among schools, with poor students and those in large cities more likely to share internet access in a single school location.

The results of the study, “Internet Access in U.S. Public Schools and Classrooms: 1994-99,” show significant progress toward the goal set by the Clinton administration’s National Information Infrastructure initiative six years ago.

According to the report, internet connectivity has jumped from a little more than one-third of schools in 1994 to 95 percent of schools in 1999. Furthermore, there is virtually no difference in which schools are most likely to have internet access, according to NCES.

Before 1994, the schools that had internet access were almost always wealthier suburban high schools, as opposed to lower-level urban schools with high levels of poverty, the agency said.

The rapid expansion from 1994 to 1999 can be attributed to everything from increased technology funding at the state and local levels, to donations by technology companies eager to train future workers, to federal government efforts such as the eRate program, which provides discounts on telecommunications services to schools and libraries.

The eRate has committed more than $3.6 billion to schools and libraries during the past two years. Officials say the program has helped connect more than a million classrooms to the internet, mostly by helping pay for internal wiring.

In 1994, 3 percent of all U.S. public school instructional rooms—namely classrooms, computer labs, and library or media centers—were connected to the internet. This figure jumped to 63 percent in 1999.

“My feeling is that we were expecting the upward trend to continue for school connectivity, but what I’m most impressed with was the dramatic increase in classrooms connections,” said Edith McArthur, NCES demographer and one of the study’s researchers.

The report revealed that the type of access still varies among schools of different poverty concentrations, grade levels, and metropolitan status, however.

The digital divide showed up between poor and more affluent schools, with the latter having nearly twice as much classroom access to the internet. Only 39 percent of instructional rooms had internet access in schools with high concentrations of poverty (defined as schools having 71 percent or more students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches). By contrast, schools with less than 11 percent of students eligible for the federal lunch program had internet connections in 74 percent of their instructional rooms.

“One problem may be that older schools tend to be in cities and rural areas, and those schools may need renovation to handle the new wiring,” McArthur said. “While the money may have been committed, [structural considerations] may be slowing things down.”

Students were more likely to have to share internet access in larger schools, where the ratio of students to computers with internet access was 10 to 1; in the smallest schools, the ratio was six students for every computer with internet access.

The study also shows that drastic changes have occurred in how students and educators actually hook up to the internet.

NCES reports that in 1996, dial-up network connections were used by nearly three-quarters of public schools. By 1999, 63 percent of the nation’s public schools were using faster dedicated lines to connect to the web, with only 14 percent of schools using dial-up modems and 23 percent using other connection types, such as ISDN lines, wireless connections, or cable modems.

About 77 percent of secondary schools were connected to the internet via dedicated lines, compared with 60 percent of elementary schools. In addition, 72 percent of the wealthiest schools had dedicated lines wired to their buildings, while only 50 percent of the very poorest schools were wired with dedicated lines.

The study determined that nine out of 10 public schools received funding from their districts and 72 percent received funding from state and local governments. One-third of schools received money from parents and parent organizations, and one-third reported getting funds from local businesses.

Forty-eight percent of schools with the highest concentrations of poverty reported that the government was their primary source for funding, while only 14 percent of the wealthiest schools cited government funds as their primary resource.

McArthur said the NCES plans to release a survey on how teachers use the internet in April.

National Center for Educational Statistics
http://www.nces.ed.gov