by Donna Ladd
undoubtedly spent Memorial Day cursing the Federal Communications Commission
and the "Gore tax" -- the e-rate initiative to wire all schools to the
Internet by 2001. But they're missing the point.
This group sent a letter to the FCC, asking it to skewer the e-rate, the FCC's effort to help pay for Internet wiring in schools and libraries. Now, it's become a tool in the beat-Gore campaign -- a way to attack the man who thinks he invented the Internet (and probably did in the minds of many newbies).
"[T]his is a thinly veiled attempt to prop up Al Gore's sagging presidential campaign," said House Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman W.J. Lauzin (R - Louisiana), a vocal e-rate opponent.
In the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Congress said the FCC could require long-distance carriers to "fund" the e-rate with 1 percent of a 5 percent universal-service surcharge (which also funds rural long-distance access).
"Hidden tax," some screamed. But read the small print, if you can find it anywhere. The phone carriers would receive price breaks from the FCC to balance out costs associated with the e-rate so as not to "tax" consumers.
However, the phone lobby -- friends o' the GOP -- balked last year, accusing the FCC of lobbing a hidden tax, while conveniently ignoring their discounts.
The previously hunky-dory effort exploded. The GOP attacked Gore with both barrels. And the e-rate program was gutted from $2.5 billion to $1.275 for the first year -- after the FCC had promised funds to schools and libraries.
Republican Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo took the offensive in February, introducing the "E-rate Termination Act." Enough schools are wired to the Internet already, he said. E-rate critics like to say that 80 percent of schools are wired already. Don't believe the hype.
A Commerce Department study showed that only 27 percent of classrooms were wired last year -- and only 14 percent of classrooms in low-income and minority schools. Only 19 percent of black and 19 percent of Hispanic households have a computer in the home, while 41 percent of white families are tech equipped.
And, less than one-tenth of families with income under $10,000 have computers and online access. Three-quarters with income exceeding $75,000 have computers. The national average for Net-wired computers to students is 50 to 1.
Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D - Ohio) joined the Congressional Black Caucus to urge the FCC to fully fund the e-rate's second year. "Without full funding of the e-rate program, we face a continued digital divide between the haves and the have-nots," Tubbs Jones said.
The FCC complied May 28, voting to restore the e-rate's full funding, delivering a blow to the GOP.
So now kids can learn more, huh? Who knows? The factor the GOP whiners ignore in this debate is the e-rate's likely economic benefits.
That is, to attract and keep lucrative high-tech industry, communities need tech-savvy labor pools. Kids need to leave school familiar with tech trappings -- whether the Internet taught them anything new or not -- hopefully to continue their tech training in college.
The U.S. is failing miserably in this high-tech labor department -- and is sinking further into a hole every year. The Information Technology Association of America in March announced a nationwide shortage of some 400,000 programmers, systems analysts and computer scientists. And the shortage will increase by 130,000 high-tech workers a year for the next 10 years.
Silicon Valley companies are recruiting from abroad to fill these jobs, last year asking the U.S. to expand foreign visas to fill their high-tech needs. Shouldn't Americans have the first shot at these jobs?
Dr. Jocelyn Fagan, of the Urban Center at Cleveland State, is trying to get the public to pay attention to the seriousness of this tech gap. She reported that by 2000, 95 percent of the nation's population will use information technology in the workplace. And the definition of "basic skills" is rapidly expanding to include computer literacy, she said in the report.
Fagan predicts that the gap between skilled workers and the demand will grow rapidly -- especially for computer engineers and tech-savvy managers.
The professor calls for planning ahead and teamwork to bridge the gap. "To anticipate the needs of industry, partnership and communication between industry, regional policy-makers and educational institutions are real," she wrote.
That might mean looking past the next presidential election. Even if you're a Republican.
June 7, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
All Rights Reserved.
Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.