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Universal School Access To Data Networks Urged

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Washington

Unless schools gain low-cost access to developing telecommunications networks, the "information highway'' will be a dividing line separating rich information "haves'' from poor "have-nots,'' Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley told a Senate panel last week.

Mr. Riley and other educational-technology advocates testified in favor of provisions in S 1822, the proposed "communications act of 1994,'' that would establish preferential rates for schools and other educational users of what the Clinton Administration has dubbed the National Information Infrastructure.

"I have come to tell you that it will be absolutely impossible to educate the coming generation of young people to high standards of excellence if their access and use of the N.I.I. is seen as a secondary consideration to broad-based commercial purposes,'' Mr. Riley said.

While Mr. Riley appeared to go beyond the language of the proposed legislation to argue for cost-free access for schools, libraries, and other educational users, Administration officials conceded that it is more realistic to hope that the measure will induce telecommunications providers to offer "affordable rates'' for educators.

They noted that federal regulations now prevent telephone companies from offering any kind of preferential rate to a particular class of customer.

'Toll-Free Lane'

The hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee allowed educators and representatives of the educational-technology industry to discuss rate provisions in S 1822, which proposes a sweeping revision of federal telecommunications law.

Industry observers and education-technology experts agree that the potential cost of advanced computer networks is one of the main barriers to fulfilling Vice President Gore's call for every classroom to be connected to the National Information Infrastructure by the turn of the century.

Mr. Riley was adamant in his call for regulators and industry to make "an early investment in education'' by establishing a "toll-free lane'' for educators.

His personal emphasis on the importance of educational technology stands in contrast to the relative indifference of the Reagan and Bush administrations.

And his concerns were echoed a few blocks away at the National Academy of Sciences, where a panel released a report calling for increased federal leadership in the development of the information highway. (See story, this page.)

Mr. Riley's call for educational access was also endorsed at the Senate hearing by the National School Boards Association, the National Education Association, and the Public Broadcasting Service.

The hearing featured a demonstration by Kathryn Pillar, the principal of Lincoln High School in Lincoln, Neb., and Clay Ehlers, a student at the school, who used an experimental system developed by the International Business Machines Corporation to call up video clips of speeches by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., an educational-technology advocate who arranged the demonstration, noted that the images displayed on television screens in the hearing room were stored on a computer in Nebraska and delivered to Washington over a fiber-optic cable.

Given the present infrastructure and fee structure, he said, "most schools in the U.S., whether rich or poor, could not possibly afford this kind of connectivity.''

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