A Pennsylvania program that supplies preschools and day-care centers with free computers and internet access is being targeted by a state lawmaker as inappropriate—especially in a time of budget shortfalls. At issue is the question of how young is too young for children to be using computers in a government-sponsored program.

State Sen. Mary Jo White insists she’s no Luddite when it comes to providing technology for kids, but she does have her doubts when it comes to preschoolers and the internet.

White, R-Venango, is questioning a decision by the governor and the General Assembly to spend nearly $10 million a year—including $1.4 million in state funds and $8.4 million in federal money—to hook up day-care centers to the internet.

The program is called CyberStart. It was a favorite of former Gov. Tom Ridge’s administration that also has been taken up by Gov. Mark S. Schweiker. CyberStart provides free access to the internet for day-care centers, along with training for day-care staff members in how to use it.

“Why are we spending all this money to wire day-care centers?” White asked in what has become an annual question for her as the Legislature takes up Schweiker’s $20.9 billion proposed budget for 2002-03.

“You’re dealing with preschoolers here who can’t read, so it’s hard for me to understand why they need internet access,” she said.

Osaze Proctor might have an answer. The 5-year-old at the Harrisburg YWCA’s day-care center busied himself recently at a CyberStart computer, playing an internet-based game that required him to match pictures of objects with words they represented.

With the aid of a teacher, Proctor identified the “v” that begins the word “violin” and matched up the photo to the word by clicking and dragging with a mouse. The computer played a fanfare to celebrate Proctor’s success, and he clapped his hands in victory.

Although they use the computer regularly, children are not spending their days in front of the machines, said Jo Shepperd, director of community education for the YWCA. Rather, the computers are one of many components in the learning process, she said.

“They’re learning to use computers like they’re learning to use crayons,” Shepperd said. “It’s just another learning tool.”

Training of staff has helped make use of the internet more effective, Shepperd said. The CyberStart program provides a regional program manager who offers advice to staff on good web sites to use and ways to incorporate the computer into their activities.

“I still think that technology is a component that should be handled very carefully in early childhood classrooms,” Shepperd said. “I think it has a lot of potential…. We have to be careful how we use it, and I think that’s CyberStart’s intent.”

When Ridge announced CyberStart in 1998, he touted it as a program that helped children excel by giving them access to worldwide resources and computer-based training right from the preschool level.

Officials with the state Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) say they will have more than 1,500 day-care centers hooked up to the internet this year, with more than 1,600 free computers delivered. The program provides free hardware, software, internet access, and computer installation.

The program’s eventual goal is to have all 4,000 day-care centers in Pennsylvania hooked up to computers, said Matt Tunnell, second in command at DCED.

But this year, the Legislature is facing an especially tight budget, and faltering revenue projections mean the situation has become even more worrisome since Schweiker first proposed his plan for the next fiscal year.

Budget Secretary Robert A. Bittenbender has said the state’s revenues might fall short of projections by more than $700 million by the time this fiscal year ends on June 30.

White isn’t the only senator questioning the CyberStart program. Sen. Tim Murphy, R-Allegheny, wants to know what the program is doing for the children.

“Preschoolers are in a phase where they’re still learning their numbers, their letters, their colors,” said Murphy, who is also a psychologist. “Young children have a tremendous capability to learn, … but I’m not sure the internet is the best source to teach them.”

Links:

CyberStart program
http://cyberstart.org

Pennsylvania General Assembly
http://www.legis.state.pa.us

Department of Community and Economic Development
http://www.inventpa.com