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Excise Tax To Pay for School Technology Advocated

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To buy all the computers, all the software, and all the related equipment envisioned in technology plans floating around state education departments would cost $31.5 billion, according to an analysis by the Milken Family Foundation.

The best and most politically feasible way to pay for improvements that would bring the nation's schools into the information age would be a national tax on sales of computer hardware and software, the study's author argues.

Lewis Solomon, the president of the Milken Institute for Job & Capital Formation, a division of the foundation, announced the survey results and his plan for the national tax earlier this month. Such a tax, along with local matching funds and contributions from business, would give students and teachers the technology they need to compete in today's economy, he said.

The tax would also provide enough money to insure that the technology infrastructure would never become obsolete, he added.

But Mr. Solomon, a former dean of the education school at the University of California at Los Angeles, said Congress is unlikely to pass such a tax unless a sizable constituency arises around the issue of wiring classrooms.

While no such lobby yet exists for school technology, Mr. Solomon said an existing cadre of "true believers" among teaching professionals could help build the needed political pressure.

Mr. Solomon surveyed all 50 chief state school officers to arrive at his cost estimates. He said that 44 percent of respondents already had technology plans, and the rest said they were creating them.

Massive Expenditures

His survey data, which he plans to incorporate into a book, were released this month at the 1995 Milken Family Foundation National Education Conference in Los Angeles. The Santa Monica-based foundation focuses on education, community welfare, and medical and heath-care research.

Mr. Solomon argued that to fully pay the estimated costs of implementing those plans over the next five years, a 5 percent federal excise tax on sales of computer hardware and software could raise as much as $5 billion annually.

He said the remainder of the $31.5 billion would come from state matching funds and from industry contributions.

"People argue that sales taxes are regressive," he said. "But people who buy computers are more affluent than most. It's almost more like a luxury tax than a sales tax."

He also said that revenues from the federal tax would likely increase as sales of computers and software increase over time, creating a fund that schools could use to replace aging equipment.

Replacing obsolescent inventory is a nagging problem for the nation's schools, where half the computers are incapable of processing today's software or tapping communications networks.

Mr. Solomon said the $31.5 billion estimate does not include the cost of placing a computer on every student's desk. That, he said, would cost an additional $39 billion.

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