School Access to Computer Networks Sought
The Clinton Administration's goal of connecting every classroom to the "information highway" could be riding on a controversial amendment to a telecommunications bill now pending in the Senate.
The amendment would require telecommunications companies to provide educational access to their networks at the lowest possible cost.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, R-Me., offered the amendment to S 652, the proposed "telecommunications competition and deregulation act of 1995," in late March when the Senate Commerce Committee approved the bill.
The bill's sponsors had hoped to bring it to the floor for a vote last month, but it was stalled by objections to other provisions raised by senators from across the political spectrum.
The educational-access amendment would require telecommunications companies that received "bona fide" requests from elementary and secondary schools to provide access to telecommunications "at rates that are affordable and not higher than the incremental costs" of providing the service.
One prominent Clinton Administration official, Reed E. Hundt, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said that while the Administration supports efforts to deregulate the telecommunications industry to promote competition and reduce costs to consumers, market forces alone will not insure that schools can obtain access to communications technology.
"If the natural working of the marketplace was going to build networks into the classrooms, then it already would have happened," he said in an interview. "Without a specific public policy, it's not going to happen."
The wording of the amendment is considerably less inclusive than the educational-access provisions of a similar deregulation bill that was removed from consideration late in last year's Congressional session.
Federal Role Key
The Democrats who then controlled the Senate contended that opposition from the telephone industry made it impossible to round up enough votes to pass the bill before Congress adjourned. (See Education Week, 10/5/94.)
Advocates of improved educational access to telecommunications predict that the amendment will still meet opposition on a number of grounds, including fears in the telephone industry that the provisions could cut into profit margins.
Dennis Bybee, the associate executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education, which has lobbied strongly for the amendment, said that schools now are generally charged relatively high business rates for their telephone service.
He and others noted that the original version of the deregulation bill, introduced earlier this year by Sen. Larry Pressler, R-S.D., had been silent on the issue of educational access.
Mr. Bybee argued that it is vital that the legislation require the F.C.C. to create a federal framework for shaping educational-telecommunications policies that would force local policies to develop in a more uniform manner.
"A lot of the actual details would be developed in the state public-utilities-commission environment," he said. "No single state is like any other state in the ways that they have organized telecommunications."
Access to high-speed, high-capacity telecommunications links currently can cost hundreds of dollars in one state and thousands in others, Mr. Bybee pointed out.
Observers say the amendment could be in jeopardy when the Senate votes on the deregulation measure, probably late this month or early next month.
And the underlying bill has some powerful opponents, including Vice President Gore, who took issue with some of the deregulatory aspects of the measure that are unrelated to the education provisions.
In a previous interview, Mr. Hundt took educators to task for ignoring the fast-developing changes in the deregulation bill.
Mr. Bybee, however, noted that education lobbyists have had their hands full with other school-related legislation moving through Congress.
"One of the things that has inhibited a strong push is that the rescissions have been hitting education really hard," Mr. Bybee said, referring to pending bills that would cut already appropriated money from the Education Department's budget for this fiscal year. "In that environment, you can't fault educators coming back to 'home base.'"