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Policy on School Access to Data Networks Urged

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Crystal City, Va.

Congress should set a national goal of immediately connecting every school to the developing "information highway'' and insuring that every classroom has access to sophisticated data networks by the turn of the century, a policy statement released here by a new national coalition of education organizations urges.

"Right now, classrooms are the telecommunications ghettos of American culture,'' said John Yrchik, a senior professional associate for research at the National Education Association and an author of the policy statement.

"Our information infrastructure is in deplorable shape,'' Mr. Yrchik said at a press conference.

The statement, titled "The National Information Infrastructure: Requirements for Education and Training,'' was released late last month at an international convention on distance learning.

The document represents a consensus of 85 organizations about how the Clinton Administration's National Infrastructure Initiative should be structured to accommodate educational uses of telecommunications.

The statement was drafted at the request of the White House by the newly formed umbrella group, which is called the National Coordinating Committee on Technology in Education and Training.

The coalition includes the N.E.A., the American Federation of Teachers, the Black College Satellite Network, the National Catholic Education Association, the Public Broadcasting Service, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

'Fork in the Road'

As the nation's telecommunications firms move ahead with their plans to develop high-speed communications networks, and as Congress wrestles with the issue of how to regulate the new medium, the coalition hopes to serve as a voice for educators, who until now have been on the sidelines in the high-stakes debate over telecommunications policy.

"This is the fork in the road for American society,'' Mr. Yrchik said. "This is the time when we will decide whether American society will split apart into something resembling a third-world hierarchy'' based on access to information.

Coalition spokesmen explained that the Administration sought the statement to provide guidance and advice about the technology needs of schools as it seeks to use regulatory incentives to foster the development of the information highway.

Frank B. Withrow, the director of learning technologies for the Council of Chief State School Officers, a member of the coalition, argued that educational access will have to involve some financial relief from telecommunications tariffs.

"The N.I.I. is not a highway,'' he noted; "it's a toll road.''

Under a section in the policy statement on "access requirements,'' Mr. Yrhcik and John Cradler of the Council for Educational Development and Research call for a rethinking of the concept of "universal service'' in telecommunications.

"Educational access to ... the N.I.I. must be subsidized in some fashion,'' the statement contends.

Such subsidies, they suggest, could range from federal and state tax relief for service providers to "checkoff boxes'' that would allow ratepayers to make donations to educational-telecommunications projects.

Officials of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, a nonvoting member of the coalition, said resolving tariff and other issues will be vital to achieving the N.I.I. vision.

Tariff Issue Stressed

"I think this is where the rubber meets the road for educational technology,'' said Ed Fitzsimmons, who represented the White House at the news conference.

Vice President Gore has been a vocal advocate of educational access to sophisticated data channels. And John Gibbons, who currently heads the White House science-and-technology office, oversaw two landmark studies of educational applications of technology in the late 1980's as the head of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment.

But participants in the news conference also were quick to point to a disclaimer in the report that signals that the document is designed "to facilitate understanding of education and training requirements of the N.I.I.'' and does not imply endorsement by government personnel.

The coalition will hold bi-monthly public meetings in Washington to discuss telecommunications policies.

Beginning this month, it will post its working papers and selected information on policy formation on America Online, a national computer network.

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