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Fate of School-Telecommunications Guarantees Uncertain

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Washington

Supporters of guaranteeing schools affordable access to the digital networks of the "information highway" failed to attach such a requirement to the massive telecommunications bill approved by the House last month.

But in an unusual move, the chairman of the House Commerce Committee promised during floor debate that he would work to retain affordable-access provisions contained in the Senate's telecommunications bill when the two measures are reconciled in a conference committee.

The House passed its deregulation bill, HR 1555, last month, setting the stage sometime this month for a conference with the Senate, which passed its own measure earlier in the year. (See Education Week, June 21, 1995.)

Both bills aim to revamp the nation's telecommunications laws, which have remained nearly static since Congress passed the Communications ACT of 1934, to foster greater competition. But while the Senate bill would guarantee low rates to schools, the House bill only calls for creating a commission of federal and state officials charged with recommending ways to ensure that schools have access to telecommunications.

Some educators argue that making sure teachers and students are not priced out of the "information economy" should be an urgent national priority. But educational access is a relatively minor issue in a debate where billions of dollars in potential revenue for the nation's cable-television, cable, cellular, software, and media conglomerates is at stake.

"This is a huge bill, and it's very easy for this issue to get lost in the shuffle," a Democratic aide said.

Moreover, many Republican lawmakers believe that their aim of deregulating the telecommunications industry would be compromised if any group were granted what amounts to a subsidy under the new legislation.

Last-Minute Effort

The effort to amend the House telecommunications bill, which was supported by several education groups, was led by a bipartisan quartet: Rep. Constance A. Morella, R-Md.; Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio; Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.; and Rep. Bill Orton, D-Utah.

But the House Rules Committee, voting along party lines just before the bill was passed on Aug. 2, refused to allow them to introduce an amendment with wording similar to that in the Senate bill. Their proposal would have required telecommunications companies to guarantee schools, libraries, and hospitals and clinics "affordable" access to telecommunications.

Ms. Lofgren then took her case to Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who has publicly advocated the use of technology in schools. Shortly afterward, according to lobbyists and House aides, Mr. Gingrich spoke with Thomas J. Bliley Jr., R-Va., the chairman of the Commerce Committee, who later pledged to support the Senate language.

Mr. Bliley publicly assured Ms. Morella that he would help ensure that "the intent of [the amendment] she would have offered had she been able to is carried out in the final legislation."

It is unclear, however, whether the school-access language will survive. Conferees have not been named, and proponents fear that Mr. Bliley's support will not be enough if deregulation-minded Republicans dominate the conference.

Shrinking Resources

"One of the keys will be who are the conferees," said Sally Shake, the director of government relations for Education Legislative Services Inc., a San Diego-based firm that lobbies on behalf of several California school districts.

She argued that an affordability guarantee is especially vital because some lawmakers are pro~posing to drastically cut federal funding for school technology. Lower rates for telecommunications would allow schools to redirect their own money to help fill that gap, she said.

Others speculated that deregulation of the telecommunications industry could also reduce schools' technology resources in a more indirect way.

For many years, these observers noted, as the nation's telephone and cable-television companies jousted with one another to obtain favorable regulatory treatment, they often donated equipment and services to schools and mounted expensive pilot projects in telecommunications as demonstrations of good corporate citizenship. (See Education Week, Oct. 24, 1990.)

"You simply can't cite the things that have been done so far as an indication of what may happen under deregulation," argued an aide to Rep. Orton.

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