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Jewish World Review / June 9, 1998 / 15 Sivan, 5758

Roger Simon

Roger Simon The Internet president?

WASHINGTON -- To Bill Clinton and Al Gore, the plan was simple: Every school in America would be wired to the Internet by the year 2000.

Aside from studies they cited showing how kids exposed to the Internet did better in school as they grew older, the two also believed the Internet
A ‘net account for every home?
had a "democratizing" effect in that it provides exactly the same information to each person.

"For the very first time in our history," Clinton said at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology commencement speech last week, "it is now possible for a child in the most isolated inner-city neighborhood or rural community to have access to the same world of knowledge at the same instant as the child in the most affluent suburb."

The problem, Clinton said, is that all children do not have equal access to computers or the Internet.

"Affluent schools are almost three times as likely to have Internet access in the classroom," he said, "white students more than twice as likely as black students to have computers in their homes."

During the same speech, however, Clinton revealed his latest plan: No child in America would be able to graduate from middle school and enter high school without first becoming computer literate.

While 10 states already require this of students before they can graduate from high school, Clinton said schoolchildren had to be taught how to use spreadsheets, search engines and word processing software at a younger age.

"All students should feel as comfortable with a keyboard as a chalkboard, as comfortable with a laptop as a textbook," Clinton said.

Clinton pledged $180 million over three years, beginning in 2000, to transform selected teachers into "technology experts" in each middle school in the country.

Before this can happen, however, all the middle schools in the nation would have to be wired for the Internet and, more importantly, be able to afford the phone connections.

But who's going to pay for it?

For several months, the Clinton administration has been enmeshed in a controversy over what critics call the "Gore Tax."

Clinton and Gore say it's not a tax at all and should not be paid for by the public but by the phone companies.

Under a plan called e-rate, for education rate, schools, libraries and health centers are supposed to be given an up to 90 percent discount on phone rates for Internet connections, with the greatest discounts going to schools with the greatest number of poor children.

The cost was to be borne by the phone companies and offset by reductions in their costs granted them by the FCC.

The major long-distance companies, including MCI and AT&T, have said, however, they will pass on the cost of the e-rate plan, along with the cost of other programs, to their customers.

Even though Congress approved the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that made the e-rate plan possible, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have attacked the Clinton administration for the extra costs to consumers, and former Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes has attacked the whole notion of the government wiring schools.

"The government did not promise universally available TV sets," he said.

Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C., said, "Congress didn't intend for the Federal Communications Commission to raise telephone rates on everyday Americans to fund this program."

But at MIT, Clinton said he had no intention of shelving or even scaling back his plan.

"It's the most crucial initiative we've launched to help connect our schools, our libraries and our rural health centers to the Internet," Clinton told the 2,400 graduates who sat on folding chairs on MIT's grassy quadrangle.

Earlier, deputy White House press secretary Joe Lockhart had told reporters that the long-distance companies "have not been completely straightforward" with consumers. Lockhart said that the phone companies have gotten $2.4 billion in cost reductions from the government in the last 11 months, and "now, some genius in marketing has decided to make this an add-on to customers."

Schools, Lockhart said, have only signed up for about $2 billion in benefits so far.

Clinton said Americans "cannot afford not to have an e-rate" and added, "If we really believe that we all belong in the Information Age, then, at this sunlit moment of prosperity, we can't leave anyone behind in the dark."

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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.