Study: Web offers few riches for poor

Although low-income and immigrant groups in America are increasingly gaining access to the internet, little online content is geared to their needs, a report released March 15 by the nonprofit Children’s Partnership says.

According to the report, titled “Online Content for Low-Income and Underserved Americans: The Digital Divide’s New Frontier,” at least 50 million Americans are underserved by the internet because it lacks information about jobs, housing, and education for poor people and those who don’t read or speak English well.

“There’s been so much focus on the boxes and wires to connect to the internet that we almost forgot to ask what people are getting once they connect,” said Wendy Lazarus, coauthor of the study and founder of the Children’s Partnership.

Out of 1,000 web sites studied, the group found only six percent contained information that people living at or below the poverty line said would interest them. Low-income Americans expressed an interest in local information about jobs and housing, as well as multilingual content.

Though 32 million Americans speak primarily a language other than English, about 87 percent of web pages are in English, the study says. In addition, most online content is in text and graphics rather than sound and video, which are easier to understand, although they require more bandwidth.

Sites that provide accessible and practical information for low-income and non-English-speaking users belong mostly to community organizations, schools, and businesses, the study says. But the report suggests that school web sites can do a great deal more to bridge the “content gap” that exists today.

School district might have to ditch computer software

Alabama education officials might force the troubled Jefferson County school system to drop a $5 million computer program they say might have contributed to the schools’ accounting problems.

State Superintendent Ed Richardson hasn’t made a decision yet, but the school system may be ordered to replace its five-year-old, $5 million Oracle database with a less expensive one. Jefferson County is the only school system in the state that uses it.

The state Education Department took over the system in February after an audit found its financial records were out of balance by $51 million. The system is $20 million in debt and projected to run up to a $16 million deficit.

Critics have complained from the beginning that the Oracle software was too difficult to operate and 50 times more expensive than a program used by 119 other systems in Alabama. With time, many began to attribute financial problems to the software.

“Other computer systems do the same things and cost nowhere near $5 million,” said Robert Morton, the education department’s finance director.

But the database’s defenders argued that Oracle is a worldwide leader in storing and processing information, from balancing finances to ordering classroom materials. It also has a security system that limits users to certain tasks, based on their job descriptions.

“I think it was a good investment,” said former County Superintendent Bruce Wright, who left office in late March.

Offensive eMail prompts calls for school board member’s resignation

A group of black parents is calling for the resignation of an Escambia County, Florida, school board member because of an eMail message they say contained a racist remark.

Board member Hal Mason said he had no intention of resigning or apologizing. He said that his comment about “kinky-haired libs” was a reference to a newspaper editor, not to blacks.

Mason sent the message to Gov. Jeb Bush in support of school vouchers.

Dozens of black community members say they are insulted by Mason’s eMail, and demanded Mason’s resignation at the board’s March 21 meeting.

“Saying ‘kinky-haired’ is just like saying black,” said John Rigsby, head of the Bibbs Elementary Parent-Teacher Association.

“If he meant what he wrote, then he was being discriminatory and should be removed,” Rigsby said. “If he didn’t mean it, then he’s just delusional, and he certainly can’t represent the public, if that’s the case.”

Mason said he was referring to Pensacola News Journal opinion editor and columnist Carl Wernicke. Wernicke, who is white, said Mason must be mistaken—because his hair is not kinky.

A representative for Bush, Justin Sayfie, couldn’t confirm whether the governor received the message.

In addition to Bush, the eMail message was sent to the other four school board members, state Reps. DeeDee Ritchie, D-Pensacola, and Jerry Maygarden, R-Pensacola, and to the News Journal.

Mason sent his message March 14 after a Tallahassee judge struck down Bush’s voucher plan as unconstitutional. The eMail note encouraged Bush to appeal the decision.

In a March 16 editorial, the News Journal found “some merit” in the court ruling, but suggested the issue be settled with a referendum on whether the Florida Constitution should be changed to allow vouchers.

Kansas House approves bill to set up education network

A bill designed to make sure that all Kansans have high-speed access to the internet through public schools and local libraries won House approval March 24, despite some skepticism that the state could accomplish its goal.

The bill, HB 2591, would create the Kansas Education Technology Network, also known as Kan-Ed. Not only is the measure designed to provide internet access; its provisions also are intended to make distance-learning programs possible throughout rural areas.

The state Department of Education believes it can set up such a network by March 2001 with $4.5 million. Gov. Bill Graves proposed appropriating money the state has received from the settlement of lawsuits by 46 states against tobacco companies, but the bill does not specify the source of money for the network.

The House’s 87-38 vote sent the bill to the state Senate.

“This is a bill, in my judgment, that will rank as one of the more important things we have done for education,” said Rep. Ralph Tanner, R-Baldwin City, chairman of the House Education Committee.

However, some members saw the praise as hyperbole. Rep. George Dean, D-Wichita, noted that many schools have antiquated computers, adding, “I think this is a highway to nowhere.”

Conservative Rep. Kay O’Connor, R-Olathe, said a provision requiring schools and libraries to adopt policies on filtering internet pornography is toothless.