The Detwiler Foundation, a California-based nonprofit that pioneered the practice of placing donated computers into schools, has pulled the plug on its national Computers for Schools program. The decision comes in the midst of a heated debate about whether computer donations help—or hurt—schools.

Started in 1991 by entrepreneur and philanthropist John Detwiler, the foundation solicited used computers from businesses, had them refurbished by prison inmates, then placed them in needy schools. In partnership with state Departments of Education, the program spread to about 20 states and supplied some 75,000 donated machines to schools nationwide.

But in early March, Detwiler sent a letter to donors saying the foundation would no longer accept or process computer donations. In an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune, he cited dwindling support as the primary reason for his decision.

“We’ve reached the point … where we can help children better by concentrating on helping other organizations,” Detwiler was quoted as saying.

According to the Union-Tribune, the Detwiler Foundation will remain in existence to share its knowledge with other computer donation programs across the country. But Detwiler told the San Diego newspaper that there’s a “decided lack of interest” in his cause these days by schools, corporations, parents, and the press. Repeated attempts by eSchool News to reach Detwiler were unsuccessful.

New Millennium Classrooms Act

The news that Detwiler is halting his computer donation philanthropy comes at a time when Congress is considering a controversial bill that would give companies greater incentive to donate their used machines to schools.

The New Millennium Classrooms Act, introduced by Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Mich., and cosponsored by 30 senators of both parties, would expand a 1997 law that gives businesses tax incentives for donating computers to schools. The 1997 law, known as the 21st Century Classrooms Act, was set to expire this year.

Under the new bill, companies would be eligible for a more valuable tax credit of 30 percent of the computer’s “fair market value,” or 50 percent for computers donated in federally recognized empowerment zones or Indian reservations.

The new bill also would extend the age of machines that could be donated from 2 to 3 years old, and the legislation would apply to computer manufacturers as well—so companies that provide a three-year computer lease could donate their trade-ins and receive a tax break.

Many school groups and technology organizations oppose the measure, however, believing that schools would benefit more from new computers with faster operating systems that can take advantage of the internet and multimedia software.

“While this [bill] is intended to help schools, it may, in fact, place an additional burden on schools,” said Keith Krueger, executive director of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), a nonprofit group that promotes the use of technology in schools. “Encouraging a tax credit for 3-year-old computers will only slow the progress we are making.”

Roger Hoyer, associate superintendent for California’s New Haven Unified School District, agrees. “Software developers are only writing programs for the new machines,” he said. “If schools start off with 3-year-old computers, it’s a real problem. We have to keep our staff and students near the edge of the technology curve.”

Krueger cited several recent studies, including one by Market Data Retrieval, which show the number of students per instructional computer has dipped below six for the first time in history. This is down from 19 students per computer in 1992 and almost reaches the goal set by the U.S. Department of Education of five students for every computer, he said.

But “the data [are] less impressive when you look at students per instructional multimedia computers [those equipped with a sound card and CD-ROM drive],” Krueger said. That figure is one for every 9.8 students. The problem is no longer that students don’t have access to computers, Krueger said—it’s that they don’t have access to multimedia machines.

Yet proponents of the bill, which include the National Association of Secondary School Principals, note that 3-year-old computers are mostly Pentiums running Windows 95—and still vastly outperform the Apple IIs that exist in some schools.

Peter Gentieu, director of operations at Computer Reclamation Inc., a nonprofit organization in metropolitan Washington, D.C., told eSchool News, “The attitude [that schools must have brand-new computers] shows a technical misunderstanding as to what can actually be done. I simply challenge anyone to tell me why a Pentium II will not do the job … What are these kids doing, building hydrogen bombs?”

Even the Detwiler Foundation raised its standards for donations last year, accepting only Pentium-based or equivalent computers.

Willie Cade, president of the Chicago-based Computers for Schools Association—which plans to take over the Detwiler Foundation’s national donation program—expressed his support of the New Millennium Classrooms Act in testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee in March.

In an interview with eSchool News, Cade said schools need 12 million computers to bring the ratio to the recommended level of one for every five students. But, he added, the average age of a school computer is 7 years old, “so on average, we should throw all those computers out of our schools.”

Standardizing equipment

For opponents of computer donations, access to the latest computers isn’t the only issue driving the debate. “To have a hodgepodge of donated computers just creates too many additional costs for schools,” Hoyer said.

According to a study on total cost of ownership (TCO) conducted last year by CoSN, “One of the widely held principles of controlling the [TCO] of computers in the business environment is that the more hardware can be standardized throughout an organization, the less the organization will have to spend on tech support, maintenance, stockpiling replacement parts, and training staff.”

Supporters of the Detwiler Foundation’s efforts believe they benefited all parties involved. “The Detwilers moved access to technology into the forefront of the public agenda in a way that hadn’t really been done before,” Samuel Ingersoll-Weng, a former grant-writer for the foundation, told the Union-Tribune.

But even federal officials seem to be distancing themselves from computer donation programs—despite the fact that the federal government operates one such program, called Computers for Learning.

Linda Roberts, White House adviser on educational technology, told eSchool News her personal feeling about the New Millennium Classrooms Act was that “it’s really not the direction that we think we need to take to help the advancement of modern technology in our schools.”

Detwiler Foundation

Consortium for School Networking

Computers for Learning