Equity & Diversity Commentary

Digital-Divide Disconnect

By Norris E. Dickard — April 24, 2002 4 min read
Welcome to the digital divide.

With little background information and no reference materials at home, one student attempts to put together a high-quality presentation for a classroom project using poster board and clipped pictures from old magazines. Another student in the same class downloads primary-source data from the Library of Congress, exchanges e-mail messages with a researcher at a distant university, and puts together a multimedia presentation using his laptop computer.

Welcome to the digital divide.

Unfortunately, the first student could now fall further behind, due to a marked change in federal policy. The Bush administration’s proposed 2003 budget calls for the elimination of two critical digital-opportunity programs: the U.S. Department of Education’s Community Technology Centers Program and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Technology Opportunities Program.

The proposed cuts have been bolstered by a marked change in rhetoric. In February, the Commerce Department released “A Nation Online,” the latest study on computer and Internet use in America. The report is part of a series that was formerly a national benchmark for measuring disparities in access, but the implied message of the latest version is that the digital divide is no longer a major concern—a position simply not supported by the report’s own statistics.

For example, there is a 60-percentage-point digital divide for young people ages 10 to 17, based on their family-income levels. Only around 30 percent of young people in the lowest household-income category use computers at home, compared with more than 90 percent of those in the highest-income category. During his campaign for president, George W. Bush commendably stated that one of the most important next steps in closing the educational achievement gap was to bring technology to communities. He proposed to build 2,000 new community- technology centers a year.

The community-technology-centers program provides matching grants that leverage state, local, and other resources to create and improve technology access and training facilities. Moms on welfare go to these centers to learn new software packages that will help them get a job, preschool children play computer games that help them get a jump-start on kindergarten, immigrants come to learn English, and students come after school to—yes—work on better class projects.

In fiscal 2001, funding for the CTC program rose to an all-time high of $65 million. For fiscal 2003, the administration is calling for the program’s elimination. Education Department budget documents explain that such cuts are part of the administration’s move to eliminate small programs with limited effect and for which funds are available through larger state block grants.

The implied message of the latest study on computer and Internet use in America is that the digital divide is no longer a major concern—a position simply not supported by the report's own statistics.

Yet, both research and reports from the field testify to the fact that this is a small program with a big impact. Stories from the 1,000 community technology centers under construction, and hundreds more having their capacity vastly improved, can be found on the Web at www.DigitalDivideNetwork.org. And objective research on the program from SRI International, one of the nation’s premier education technology research groups, shows technology being used in disadvantaged communities to improve preschool, after-school, and adult learning. Now is not the time to pull the plug on them.

The Commerce Department’s TOP program, meanwhile, provides matching grants for projects that use technology in innovative ways to solve social problems and improve community access to modern telecommunications. The program has awarded 530 grants, totaling $192.5 million, and leveraged an additional $268 million in state, local, or private-sector funding. Like the Education Department’s CTC program, its funding peaked at $45.4 million in 2001. Elimination is in the works for 2003.

With rapid technology-product cycles, the work of continuing to demonstrate innovative uses of technology to help communities solve pressing problems is never done. With broadband, Internet 2, and new wireless and hand-held devices just being introduced, next-generation venture capital is as essential as ever to spur public-private partnerships and spark innovation.

In short, with private-sector investments in technology programs waning because of the recession, with state budgets under the biggest crunch in years, the need for smart public-private partnerships to bridge the digital divide is more important than ever. The private sector is still involved, but it cannot go it alone.

The White House’s decision to backpedal on public investments that were the needed catalyst for these partnerships threatens to curtail the progress made to date—and will result in too many students still left behind on the other side of the digital divide.

Norris Dickard is a senior associate at the Washington-based Benton Foundation (www.benton.org). He served in both terms of the Clinton administration—the last two years as a senior policy adviser focused on developing the Community Technology Centers Program.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2002 edition of Education Week as Digital-Divide Disconnect


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