Studies Assess School Technology Fund's Effect
By Tiffany Danitz, Staff Writer
Most teachers have computers in their classrooms and they aren't afraid to use them. But teachers in schools with lots of disadvantaged students don't share the same quick, easy access, even though a three-year-old government program has provided billions to get schools wired, according to two new U.S. Department of Education (DOE) studies.
The Universal Service Fund For Schools and Libraries, better known as E-Rate, was established in 1996 as part of the Telecommunications Act to put schools and public libraries on the Information Superhighway.In its second year, it paid out $4 billion to 13,000 public school districts, 70,000 public schools, 5,000 private schools and 4,500 library systems.
Most of the money paid for equipment and services for internal building connections, telecommunications services and Internet access. DOE says even more will be paid out this year because requests have exceeded last year's $4 billion
But two new DOE studies, Teachers' Tools for the 21st Century: A Report on Teachers' Use of Technology and E-Rate and the Digital Divide paint a mixed picture of how effective the program has been. The latter study was conducted by the Urban Institute at DOE's request. They show that as of last year, 99 percent of public school teachers had access to computers at their schools and 84 percent had at least one computer in their classroom. More than one third of teachers felt comfortable using computers and the Internet to teach. A majority of the teachers said they were self-taught, but 88 percent followed up by going to a professional development seminar to enhance their skills.
On the bleaker side, the NCES study found that the digital divide still exists. Computer and Internet availability was not equally distributed among schools. The greater the number of minority students in a school, the less chance there was that the Internet would be available in the classroom.
However, E-Rate funding is slowly chipping away at the digital divide, the studies show. In the second year of the program, there was an increase in applications from school districts in poor communities.
"The E-Rate is helping to eliminate the digital divide and raise standards of learning in virtually every school and classroom," said U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley.
The study finds:
- Public schools have benefited most from the program. Three-fourths of schools as opposed to nearly half of public libraries and 15 percent of private schools applied for funding.
- Per student funding to school districts increased dramatically with poverty so the more disadvantaged school districts received almost ten times as much per student as the others.
- Larger districts and larger libraries sought funds more often than smaller ones.
In The States
Delaware, under Governor Tom Carper's tenure, has been a leader in connecting classrooms to technology. This state has received the least amount of e-rate funding per capita because it was ahead of the game. The number of rural areas in a state, degree of poverty and prior investment in technology affected which states applied for E-Rate funds.
Alaska is one of the states that has gained most from the program. Although the state does not have much child poverty, it benefited because it is a rural state, and equipment and services cost much more than in the lower-50. On a per-capita basis, Kentucky, Mississippi and New Mexico also utilized the program well, the studies show.