The federal e-rate, which comes from a surtax on phone service, pays to wire schools, closing the “digital divide” between the rich and the poor. Overpays, writes techno-skeptic Todd Oppenheimer in The Nation. The e-rate is a huge boondoggle that ultimately widens the educational divide.
There are three bitter paradoxes in this. First, it won’t be long before the Internet goes wireless, which will make much of the schools’ investment in wired computing — at a cost of roughly $80 billion over the past decade — obsolete. Second, yesteryear’s frenzy to wire the schools occurred during very flush times. Today, states are struggling with budget cuts — and the damage these cuts are doing to fundamental school needs such as building repairs, teacher salaries and purchases of books, science supplies and other classroom necessities.
And the benefits of technology are mostly hype.
. . . when business leaders talk about what they need from new recruits, they hardly mention computer skills, which they find they can teach employees relatively easily on their own. Most employers say their priority is what are sometimes called “soft” skills: a deep knowledge base; the ability to listen and communicate; to think critically and imaginatively; to read, write and figure; and many other capabilities that schools are increasingly neglecting. A report from the Information Technology Association of America, which represents a range of companies that use technology, put it this way: “Want to get a job using information technology to solve problems? Know something about the problems that need to be solved.”
Poor schools have almost as many computers as rich schools, according to the Education Department. But students aren’t learning any more — especially if their teachers are wasting time trying to get the computers running.
When the computers do work, fancy software programs automate design and math functions so beautifully that students don’t have to think through much of their work anymore. School papers throughout the country are so dominated by computer graphics these days that students often spend only a fraction of their time on the intellectual content of the assignment.
Update: A division of NEC has admitted defrauding San Francisco and other school districts on e-rate contracts.