Campaigning for Access
Activists and lawmakers launch effort to save federal initiatives on digital technology With limited private and campus funds, officials at North Carolina Central University in Durham, N.C., tried to establish an Internet and computer-based tutoring system in some of Durham’s poorest public schools. Limited funding enabled the purchase of five computers, each of them going to a different school. Sensing that the university’s digital divide outreach program could serve more students by setting up full-fledged computer centers in underserved schools, local churches and a Boys and Girls Club facility, NCCU officials later applied for and secured a three-year federal grant of $441,043 from the U.S. Department of Commerce.
“We’ve been able to buy computers, and have hired community people to supervise the sites,” says Dr. Ted Parrish, an NCCU professor and one of the principal investigators of the Commerce Department grant.
Just months after receiving first-year funding, NCCU officials have grown dismayed with the reality that the Bush administration is seeking to eliminate the Commerce Department grant program altogether.
“I think it’s a shame that the administration would talk about dropping the program,” Parrish laments.
In response to moves by the Bush administration, advocates for government assistance to bridge the digital divide recently launched a national campaign to save two key federal digital divide programs. Last month, lawmakers and activists announced the Digital Empowerment Campaign, a grass-roots effort to maintain funding for the Commerce Department’s Technology Opportunities Program (TOP) and the U.S. Department of Education’s Community Technology Centers program. The two initiatives are credited with helping low-income, rural and other disadvantaged groups access digital technology, including the program administered by historically Black NCCU.
A coalition of nearly 100 groups — including the National Urban League, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the National Congress of American Indians and the American Council of the Blind — in coordination with a bipartisan group of U.S. senators and representatives are leading the charge to protest the administration’s decision and save the programs.
“Now more than ever, federal leadership is crucial to ensure that urban, rural Indian tribal land residents have access to technology and can acquire the high-tech job skills necessary to compete in the 21st century economy,” says Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
TOP is a federal grant program that aids communities lagging in access to digital technologies. Under the Clinton administration’s 2001 budget, TOP distributed $42 million in grants to 74 different nonprofit organizations, including historically Black universities and colleges. In 2002, TOP funding fell to $12 million. Started in 1994, TOP has given out grants averaging around $500,000, which must be matched by local or private-sector funds. Since 1994, the Commerce Department has awarded 530 TOP grants totaling $193 million.
The Community Technology Centers (CTC) program, also targeted for elimination, has enabled local governments to establish technology centers in neighborhoods. The program is spending $32.5 million in the current fiscal year. The U.S. Education department has issued 227 CTC grants, valued at $74 million, since the program began in 1999.
Supporters of the Bush administration’s proposal say the programs have served their purpose and don’t need to be continued. “I think it makes sense for the Bush administration to zero out the funding. The people who are interested in getting online have done so because it’s become affordable for them,” says Sonia Arrison, the director of the Center for Technology Studies at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco.
Coinciding with the Bush budget proposal, the Commerce Department released a report citing significant increases in Internet use among minorities, low-income households and people living in rural areas — the groups generally targeted by digital access programs because they have lagged behind the national average for computer use and Internet access in past years.
The study found that Internet usage is annually increasing by 30 percent among Blacks, 26 percent among Hispanics, 24 percent among all rural households, 25 percent among households with an annual income below $15,000, and 29 percent among single mothers with kids at home.
“With the expansion of the Internet and related technologies into all sectors of society, federal subsidies are not justified to prove the usefulness of such technologies,” the White House stated in its proposed budget.
Critics of the Bush proposal to eliminate the TOP and CTC programs say the Commerce Department report is being used to describe an overly rosy picture of digital technology use by disadvantaged groups. They cite the fact the report did not mention the term “digital divide,” and say its tone differs significantly from the previous four editions of the report, published during the Clinton administration. The Clinton reports were titled, “Falling Through the Net: Toward Digital Inclusion.” The Bush version is called, “A Nation Online: How Americans are Expanding Their Use of the Internet.”
Joshua Kirschenbaum, a senior associate with the Oakland, Calif.-based PolicyLink advocacy organization, which is a supporter of the digital divide programs, says the campaign will focus largely on TOP’s and CTC’s value for stimulating social and economic innovation. “One of the biggest failings of our 21st century economy is that there’s no research and development, or the availability of funds, to create content and applications to help move people from poverty to prosperity,” Kirschenbaum says.
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