Foundation Turns Over Its Computer-Donation Program

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The Detwiler Foundation has handed over its controversial program for distributing refurbished computers to schools to a new trade association that plans to take a more active role in lobbying Congress to promote such programs.

The California foundation's Computers for Schools program has helped place about 75,000 donated computers in schools since 1991, according to Fred Rios, who was the operations manager until last month.

The national program is now being run by the Computers for Schools Association, based in Chicago.

But the foundation transferred responsibility for the program in California to the San Diego-based Technology Training Foundation of America.

Willie Cade, the president of the CSA, said John Detwiler, the foundation's president and co-founder, was simply weary of running the program.

"He's 72; he got a little tired," Mr. Cade said of Mr. Detwiler, whom he described as a friend as well as a former associate. Mr. Detwiler, responding to a reporter's request through Mr. Cade, declined to be interviewed.

The Detwiler method, imitated by several other programs, matches up corporations that have computers they no longer want with schools that can use them. The computers are cleaned and upgraded by inmates in prison vocational programs, by local groups, or by high school vocational students. ("How One Foundation Links Schools, Companies," Jan. 28, 1998.)

Schools around the country may apply for donations. Corporations reap publicity for donating their old machines and have some say over where they are distributed. Under a federal tax law enacted in 1997, if the computers are no more than two years old, the donors also receive a deduction on their corporate earnings equal to the computers' original purchase price plus their current market value. That law expires at the end of this year, although President Clinton's fiscal 2001 budget proposes extending it.

The La Jolla, Calif.-based foundation had affiliates in 30 states that rehabilitated donated computers. Some states contribute taxpayer money to run or support the programs. The CSA will invite the affiliates to become members and is trying to enlist the foundation's corporate sponsors.

Jeanette Roache, the president of the Technology Training Foundation, said the San Diego group would also eventually provide services in other states, as well as advice about how to run donation programs.

Unlike Detwiler and Ms. Roache's organization, the CSA is not a foundation and cannot receive tax-deductible contributions of money or equipment. But Mr. Cade said he was starting a new Computers for Schools Foundation that would be eligible for that tax status.

Critics and Defenders

Associates said Mr. Detwiler was also tiring of the program's many critics.

Some educators have loudly questioned the very premise of computer-donation programs, arguing that accepting used computers ends up costing schools more to install and maintain than buying up-to-date models.

Other critics had concerns about specific management issues, such as the $100,000-plus salary the nonprofit group paid to Mr. Detwiler, the use of tax dollars in some states to upgrade the donated machines, "matching funds" that some public schools were asked to pay to receive the best computers, and the fact that donations were also made to private schools.

And some educators charged that school districts felt pressured by state officials to participate in the donation program, even if they would rather not.

"John Detwiler's idea was that the government with strategic relationships can impose on schools something that someone thinks is a good idea," said John Vaille, the executive director of the International Society for Technology in Education, who observed the program in California over most of the past decade.

But the program also had defenders, including school administrators who were pleased with the computers they had received and said they simply could not have afforded to buy adequate numbers of new computers.

William L. Been, the network technician at Huntington Beach (Calif.) High School, said his school had received many serviceable computers from the Detwiler Foundation. Last month, it got six "squeaking clean" models with processors that are "roughly equal to the Pentium II," Mr. Been said.

"That's a good machine with full multimedia capability," he said.

Mr. Been said that while he would prefer having a school full of identical new computers, the donated models will be useful for several years. "I look at it as, it's better than nothing," he said. "If I have to work a little harder to come up with [software] drivers to make these things run, so be it."

Tax-Credit Bill

The debate has heated up recently because of pending bills in Congress that could change the nature and scale of computer donations to schools.

Under the proposed New Millennium Classrooms Act, sponsored by Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., and 89 other members of the House, the corporate tax deduction would be replaced with a more advantageous tax credit—30 percent of the original purchase price. The measure, HR 2308, would also raise the age of eligible computers to up to 3 years old and make computers eligible even if they had been "reacquired" from other companies before being donated.

The credit would be 50 percent if the recipient school was in a federal empowerment or enterprise zone.

An almost-identical Senate version of the bill, S 542, was attached to another tax bill that passed, 96-2, last June but is expected to meet a presidential veto if passed by the House. Lobbyists for some national education organizations expect the computer-donation bill to resurface in this session of Congress.

Supporters argue that the bill would help schools by sharply increasing the number of computers that corporations donate. Virtually all computers made in the past three years are Pentium IIs, they point out, yet fewer than 5 percent of donated computers are of that vintage.

Opponents, however, fear that companies would clear their cellars of marginal machines, which districts would feel pressured to accept and then spend money upgrading and maintaining—instead of buying new equipment.

Keith R. Krueger

"There's a certain amount of exasperation on the part of the education community that Congress and some businesses seem to think they're helping schools by changing the current tax law, which we think is misguided," said Keith R. Krueger, the executive director of the Consortium for School Networking, a school technology group based in Washington.

But his group might support a tax credit for computers less than 2 years old, he said.

The Detwiler Foundation supported the current bills but, as a private foundation, was prohibited from lobbying on Capitol Hill.

But the Computers for Schools Association will work actively for passage of the bill, said Mr. Cade, who formerly was the director of Metropolitan Chicago Computers for Schools, a Detwiler Foundation affiliate.

"One of our primary goals of the association is to work with Congress," Mr. Cade said. "We plan to be active wherever appropriate to get sufficient resources."

Vol. 19, Issue 33, Page 16

Published in Print: April 26, 2000, as Foundation Turns Over Its Computer-Donation Program
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