Published Online: May 14, 1997

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Study Finds Public School Edge in Internet Access

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Public school students have more classroom access to the information highway than their private school counterparts, a federal report released last week says.

The report on telecommunications in private schools from the National Center for Education Statistics reveals that half of public schools were wired to the Internet in 1995, compared with only 25 percent of private schools. On average, public schools had three times as many computers as private schools, with 72 computers per public school and 24 computers per private school.

The survey was based on the responses to a questionnaire sent to 873 private schools nationwide, representing a proportionate sample of Roman Catholic schools, other religious schools, and nonreligious schools.

"When it comes to the digital divide, private schools are on the have-not side," said Joe McTighe, the director of the Council for American Private Education, an umbrella group of private school organizations based in Washington. "Most private schools operate on bare-bones budgets and try to keep tuitions low to remain affordable to parents," he continued. "There's not a lot of discretionary income."

This public-private divide is widened because private schools typically don't have the same access to grants and bonds that can help make technology upgrades affordable to public schools, said Sister Dale McDonald, a public-policy associate with the National Catholic Educational Association.

When private schools are forced to raise funds to pay salaries and maintain basic operations, technology becomes a lower priority, she said.

"We're trying to get schools to recognize that they have to find the money to do technology renovations," Sister McDonald added. "It's necessary for the education of our children."

Money Lacking

Insufficient funding primarily accounts for the dearth of advanced telecommunications in both public and private schools, according to the NCES report. Sixty-one percent of private schools surveyed and 55 percent of public schools surveyed for an earlier study cited inadequate or improperly directed funds as the main barrier to Internet access. Other impediments included poor equipment and too few telecommunications-access points in school buildings.

Such data are timely given last week's approval by the Federal Communications Commission of a plan designed to give public and private schools and libraries discounts on all telecommunications services, including internal classroom wiring and access to the Internet. ("FCC Approves Discount Plan for Schools," in This Week's News.)

"This survey proves our point that there is a need [for discounts] for private schools," said Jeff Burchett, the director of government relations for the National Association of Independent Schools. "We're all in the same camp, and now we all have some catching up to do."

Inequity Among Schools

Some private schools may have more catching up to do than others, according to the report. Although 35 percent of Catholic schools and 32 percent of nonreligious schools were linked to the Internet in 1995, only 16 percent of other religious schools had such access.

Nonreligious schools had a much lower ratio of Internet-connected computers to students, with 25 students to each wired computer, compared with a 174-to-1 ratio in Catholic schools and a 171-to-1 ratio in other religious schools.

"Most private schools are struggling little schools, trying to run on tuitions of $2,000 to $6,000 a year," Sister McDonald said.

While she is eager to see the effect that the new FCC plan will have on classroom access to the Internet, she does not believe that the technology will alter the core curricula in private schools.

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Related Stories
Web Resources
  • Read background on the Clinton-Gore Administration's Next-Generation Internet Initiative.
  • The Consortium for School Networking. The consortium provides educators with up-to-date information on how to get quick, easy, and cost-effective access to the Internet and on-line resources. It also does lobbying.
  • Learn the Facts About: Learnet. A primer from the Federal Communications Commission on the FCC's proceedings that affect education.

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