A new federal report shows that in many cases, schools are the only place that underprivileged and minority children can access the internet.

What’s more, researchers found that the number of school-age children who have used a computer at school was nearly equal across various income, race, or ethnic groups, unlike the number of children who have used a computer at home.

But those who study school technology say this doesn’t mean the level of access to computers or the internet in schools is equal across the various groups, although this gap is narrowing.

Despite large disparities between the number of low-income or minority homes that have internet access versus higher-income, non-minority homes, schools are helping to level the playing field for children ages six to 17, a U.S. Census Bureau report released Sept. 6 found.

The so-called “digital divide” that exists between people with computers and internet access and those without may be less of a factor among school-age children, the report found, because computers are becoming common in schools.

The report used data collected from about 50,000 U.S. households in a process separate from last year’s U.S. census.

Researchers found that nine out of 10 school-age children had access to a computer last year, either at home or at school. More than half of all U.S. households had a computer last year, but gaps among income and racial groups persist.

The Census Bureau found a continued increase in overall home computer use, and a substantial rise in home internet access.

Fifty-four million households (51 percent of all households) had at least one computer in the house in August 2000, up from a reported 42 percent in December 1998.

More than four of every five households with a computer had access to the internet, the report found, up from fewer than half in 1997.

“Internet use is rapidly becoming synonymous with computer availability,” Census Bureau analyst Eric Newburger told Reuters.

Despite overall increases in the use of technology for families, the report found significant disparities among income groups.

Nine out of 10 affluent families with incomes over $75,000 had a computer, and eight out of 10 of those had internet access.

But among less-affluent families with incomes below $25,000, fewer than three out of 10 had a computer, and only two out of 10 had internet access.

The report also found a wide gap in home computer use between school-age children of various ethnic groups.

While white (77 percent) and Asian-American (72 percent) children were likely to have computers at home, only 43 percent of African-American children and 37 percent of Hispanic children had home computers.

Other national surveys have revealed similar findings.

Kathleen Brantley, director of product development for education research firm Market Data Retrieval, said that surveys conducted by her company have yielded similar results.

“There is still a digital divide in schools, but it has narrowed,” she said. Ninety-eight percent of schools now have internet access, but the level of access still varies among different ethnic and income groups.

Still, “schools are a common place where you can make a difference,” said Brantley, who added that the success was attributable to a number of highly effective state and federal technology programs initiated in recent years.

“I hope we continue to maintain a significant level of investment in technology, because I’d hate to see that progress erode,” she said. “Each individual student should have the same fair chance and the same tools to learn.

“The Census data should be encouraging to policy-makers, but I hope they don’t back off on spending [as a result of it].”

Another researcher had a different perspective. “The report is equating access at school with access at home. This is not a fair comparison,” said Jeanne Hayes, president of Denver-based Quality Education Data.

“While it is laudable that school access is helping to narrow the digital divide, the amount of time available to children in school–still not much more than one hour per week–pales in comparison to the extensive access possible at home,” Hayes said.

The report’s figures on children’s computer and internet use rely on Current Population Survey data. The data should not be confused with results from Census 2000, which did not include questions on computer access and internet use.

“Home Computers and Internet Use in the United States”