Digital divide policy unplugged: Where do we go from here?

In a stark about-face, the Bush administration has retreated from the national fight to bridge the digital divide.

The unequivocal message of the president’s fiscal year 2003 budget is that the digital divide is no longer a national priority. With the continued help of the free market’s invisible hand, the problem will somehow solve itself.

The administration’s 2003 budget calls for the elimination of two critical digital opportunity programs: the U.S. Department of Education’s Community Technology Centers (CTC) program and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Technology Opportunities Program (TOP).

Hopefully, the ultimate fate of these programs will be like that of the eRate—the foundation of the nation’s digital opportunity effort. Almost a year after the administration proposed eliminating the $2.25 billion per year eRate, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is asking for suggestions on how to improve the program.

These developments, and other changes in federal policy that will be discussed, make it important that the educational technology community be informed and heard.

I believe these proposed budget cuts are misguided for the following reasons:

The digital divide is wider than ever; government intervention is more critical now, not less.

In February 2002, the administration released “A Nation Online,” the latest nationwide study on computer and internet use in America. Once the national benchmark for measuring the digital divide, the latest report takes the position that the digital divide is no longer a major concern—a position simply not supported by the report’s own statistics.

For example, only one in four of America’s poorest households were online in late 2001, compared with eight in 10 homes earning over $75,000 per year. Even more striking is the fact that the gap between these groups expanded dramatically between 1997 and 2001. Past technology diffusion cycles suggest that the need for government intervention increases, not diminishes, as more Americans come online. The effort to guarantee universal service related to telephone service is instructive in that regard.

A dedicated stream of federal resources for community technology center development is imperative.

The CTC program provides matching grants that leverage state, local, and other resources to create and improve technology access and training facilities in low-income and rural communities. In 2001, funding for the program rose to an all-time high of $65 million. For the 2003 budget, the administration called for program elimination and even the possible rescission (taking back) of 2002 funds already appropriated. U.S. Department of Education budget documents explain that such cuts are part of the administration’s move to eliminate small programs with limited effect and for which funds are available through larger state block grants.

The Benton Foundation’s Digital Divide Network has published numerous stories from the field that tell a very different story from that told by the administration. Local leaders who are trying to connect their communities speak of a small program with a big impact. This view is supported by objective research on the program from SRI International, one of the nation’s premier education technology think tanks.

While the administration is to be commended for seeking new community technology funding for the public housing arena, many of the Department of Education projects have just been started in the last few years and serve communities outside the public housing universe. Now is not the time to pull the plug on them.

With rapid technology advances, TOP’s demonstration work is as timely as ever.

TOP provides matching grants for projects that use technology in innovative ways to solve social problems and improve community access to modern telecommunications. The program has awarded 530 grants totaling $192.5 million and leveraged an additional $268 million in state, local, or private sector funding. Like the CTC program, its funding peaked at $45.4 million in 2001. Elimination is in the works for 2003.

Michael Gallagher, deputy director of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s office that runs TOP, was quoted in the Washington Post on Feb. 5 as saying that TOP had “fulfilled its mission” and that in a time of national crisis, resources needed to be devoted to defense and other pressing priorities. I disagree.

With rapid technology product cycles, the work of continuing to demonstrate innovative uses of technology to help communities solve pressing problems is never done. With broadband, Internet2, and new wireless and handheld devices just being introduced, next-generation venture capital is as essential as ever to spur public-private partnerships and spark innovation.

Federal investment is an important catalyst for public-private partnerships.

With private-sector investments in community IT programs waning because of the recession, the need for smart, strategic, public-private partnerships to bridge the digital divide is more important than ever. In recent years, both the public and private sectors had stepped up to the plate, recognizing the long-term benefits of technology-related investment in America’s most disadvantaged communities. The private sector is still involved, but it cannot do it alone. The White House’s decision to backpedal on public investments that were the needed catalyst for these partnerships threatens to curtail the progress made in bridging the divide.

Thankfully, the eRate and its substantial resources for creating digital opportunity remain in place and poised for needed improvement. The $2.25 billion-a-year eRate has helped put in place the vast spans needed to build a bridge over the digital divide, especially in our schools. The first wave of funding rolled out just over three years ago. In November 2001, the Year Five application window opened. A year ago, the administration proposed that it be eliminated and rolled into an educational technology block grant.

Many analysts, myself included, felt that the administration’s proposal to eliminate the program, and create a mega-block grant at the U.S. Department of Education to replace it, would make this critical pool of resources too vulnerable to federal budget pressure. These fears were substantiated when the administration’s first budget request called for a 6 percent reduction in the amount allocated for educational technology under the proposed block grant. The 2003 budget proposal takes an even larger leap backwards, reducing the amount requested by 17 percent compared to the educational technology funding available in 2001.

In February 2000, the Benton Foundation, in collaboration with the Education Development Center Inc.’s Center for Children and Technology, released “The eRate in America: A Tale of Four Cities”—one of the first studies of the then-new federal program. In a second phase of our work, we also focused on the eRate and educational technology in schools. The findings and recommendations are compiled in a new report, “Great Expectations: Leveraging America’s Investment in Educational Technology,” and its companion piece, “The Evaluation Toolkit: A Work in Progress.” Both were published in January 2002 and are available for free online at the Benton Foundation web site.

At a November 2001 pre-publication release event for these reports, I suggested the following improvements to the eRate program:

• Keep the eRate at the FCC and its focus the same.

• Increase the funding cap from the current level of $2.25 billion.

• Conduct outreach and assistance to schools in low-income communities.

• Investigate ways to improve program administration and structure.

• Reassess the appropriateness of current discount levels and priorities.

• Expand the list of eligible products, services, and vendors.

On February 19, the FCC released in the Federal Register a Notice of Proposed Rule Making on the review of certain rules governing the program. Comments were due by April 5. It is critical that those on the ground who are impacted by the eRate take this opportunity to communicate about the important changes being considered.

It is also important that those who work on educational technology in state government, schools, and district offices fully understand the ramifications of a major shift in federal policy. President Bush recently signed into law a major education reform bill, the No Child Left Behind Act, with new provisions in how federal educational technology funding gets spent. One stated new goal of the legislation is to assist every student in America in crossing the digital divide and becoming fully computer literate by the eighth grade.

The law also gives new flexibility to states and local governments in how to spend their money, with the possibility that educational technology monies can be shifted to other purposes. But, it is also possible in states and local districts where “bridging the digital divide” is a policy priority, that other federal educational funds can be dedicated to nurturing and creating technology access programs.

The digital divide, if left unchecked, is a threat to our nation’s long-term prosperity. We can keep constructing those digital bridges that open up new opportunities to the disconnected, or we can walk away. The choice is ours to make. Federal, state, and local leaders who “get it” will work to see that no child or community is left behind in the digital age.

Norris Dickard is a senior associate at the Washington, D.C.-based Benton Foundation. He served in both terms of the Clinton Administration—the last two years as a senior policy advisor focused on developing the Community Technology Centers program.

Related links:
Benton Foundation

Digital Divide Network

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