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Riley wants schools online for free

Education Secretary Richard Riley urged free Net access for schools.

Education Secretary Richard Riley yesterday told federal and state regulators that they must provide schools and libraries with free, not discounted, basic Internet access.

John Gage and Michael Kauffman, creators of NetDay 96, along with Congresswoman Connie Morella (D-Maryland), Congressmen Ron Klink (D-Pennsylvania), Bobby Rush (D-Illinois), Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), and Ed Markey (D-Maryland) backed Riley at yesterday's press conference as he encouraged regulators to provide free services to students including email, access to the Web, and videoconferencing.

The Federal Communications Commission has been holding hearings to determine the feasibility of extending its universal access policy for telephones to include the Internet--and, specifically, for public institutions like schools and libraries. The hearings resulted from the Telecommunications Act passed in February, which defines an expanded concept of universal services, including discounted telecommunication services to schools and libraries. A joint board of FCC regulators and state regulators will present its recommendation based on a series of presentations such as Riley's on November 8.

Riley outlined four goals for technology in schools: connecting every school to the Internet by the year 2000; giving every teacher the training to use technology in the classroom; providing one computer for every five students; and keeping software updated with the latest technology.

A 1994 Education Department survey found that only 3 percent of U.S. classrooms were wired. Last year, the number grew to 9 percent and is expected to climb to as high as 30 percent this year, according to Jonathan Hoyt, the department's special assistant for technology. Currently, there is only one computer for every 35 students

Riley is particularly concerned that schools in inner cities and rural areas are being left behind. "Some schools are on the cutting edge of technology. But the majority are not so fortunate," he said. "The principle of free public education for all children is the bedrock of our democracy. Not cheap, inexpensive, or available for a fee, but in its essence free."

Many remain skeptical--not about the principles behind the department's proposal, but about the practicality of funding the undertaking. But Riley's department says it's come up with a solution, a solution that would in effect impose an education tax on telecommunications companies.

"Most likely there will be a Universal Service Fund created by the new law that the FCC will administer," Hoyt said. "All of the telecommunications firms that provide service to customers will be required to pay into that fund some percentage of their gross receipt and will be able to draw on that fund to reimburse them for the services to schools and libraries that they provide."