ON Aug. 4, the House easily passed a sweeping telecommunications bill. Its sponsors argue that the bill will be good for America.
I argue, however, that it's a bad deal for America' s schoolchildren.
In deregulating the telecommunications industry, Congress had an opportunity to connect every school to the "information superhighway." But, as Vice President Al Gore said, the bill was "sold to the highest bidder in every telecommunications industry. The losers are the American people."
Instead, Congress should have held out to serve the public interest. Specifically, it should have offered the telecommunications industry a grand bargain: deregulation in exchange for wiring up every school in the United States free of charge. Without this bargain, President Clinton should follow through with his threat to veto the bill.
Not long ago, House Speaker Newt Gingrich warned of a society of information "haves" and "have-nots." He was right. The tide of new information technologies will not raise all boats equally. Unless the government intervenes, some will be left behind. Others will be shut out.
ALREADY, wealthy school districts and private schools have launched innovative educational programs in computer training, Internet use, and electronic collaboration. Except for a few pockets of innovation, however, poorer school districts, particularly in inner cities and rural communities, frequently lack the resources to provide this kind of training.
A 1992 study by the Brookings Institution found a strong correlation between family income and computer use at school. It discovered that students from more-affluent families were 50 percent more likely to use computers in school than children from low-income families. So much for equal opportunity in the information age.
Unfortunately, even Mr. Gingrich failed to heed his own warnings. Unlike the Senate version of the legislation, the House bill includes no provisions for connecting schools. This is shortsighted.
Providing school children with access to new technology is our best means of preparing a work force for the future. If the US hopes to maintain rising standards of living and increased productivity, we will need to train our children to make the most of technology. If we hope to lead the world in the information age, we will need workers capable of adapting to rapid technological change.
But Congress balked. So for the near future at least, school districts, teachers, and schoolchildren will have to continue their fight for equal access without any help from the federal government.
If the current telecommunications bill is enacted, the Rupert Murdochs, Barry Dillers, and other media moguls will be quite happy indeed. It's money in the bank.
But make no mistake: It's a sellout for American schools and their students.