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Hardware's Just Half the Story

August 06, 2000

California leads the world in technological innovation but trails the nation in the percentage of students with access to computers in the classroom. A study last year by Education Week magazine ranked California dead last among states, with 8.1 students per classroom computer compared with a national average of 5.7.

State legislators and the Gray Davis administration are planning several major initiatives to bridge this digital gap. The debate this time is not over how much money to spend but how to spend the generous funding already allocated--specifically, $90 million in federal funding to prepare Californians for information technology industry jobs and the whopping half-billion dollars that Gov. Davis has set aside in this year's budget for accelerating technology spending in schools. The bulk of the money would go for buying computers and training teachers. Some of the notions now on the table would train disadvantaged students to join the skilled work force that California needs. Other plans could throw taxpayer dollars down a hole.

The most sensible plans are outlined in two bills by Sen. Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey) that the Assembly plans to consider this week. SB 1634 would expand a pilot network of 11 "community technology centers" like the P.F. Bresee Foundation, which provides computer education labs and software engineer job training for teenagers in Central and South-Central Los Angeles. The centers have been highly successful at helping low-income teenagers acquire marketable tech skills.

Bowen's second bill, SB 1774, would establish grants for schools and public libraries to make their computer facilities available on evenings and weekends. This plan could keep whole libraries open for about the cost of setting up separate computer centers with new equipment.

Not all of the current spending schemes are likely to be so cost-effective. For example, SB 1817, by Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Culver City), would allow a $200 tax credit to any Internet service provider that gave a computer and free Internet access to low-income Californians. The scheme would be hard for the state to police, and it would hand out money for something the private sector is beginning to provide free. A number of ISPs already offer free Internet access, and employers like Ford and Intel are leading private-sector efforts to provide employees with free home PCs.

In a little-noticed report earlier this year, the congressional commission charged with recommending how states ought to spend computer education dollars concluded that many adults are ill-trained not so much because they lack computers but because they lack competence in core academic subjects like reading and math.

Legislators should focus on how to use computers wisely to advance learning. Computers are only tools; unless they're used toward definite goals, they're just expensive, bulky knickknacks.

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