March 10, 1996

NetDay as a Political Event:
Clinton Helps Schools Go On Line

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    CONCORD, Calif., March 9 -- With a length of electrical cable and a nod to the American traditions of barn-raisings, quilting-bees and victory gardens, President Clinton helped wire classrooms in a California high school to the Internet on Saturday in a first step toward his goal of connecting every school in the nation by the turn of the century.

    In public ceremonies across the state on Saturday, more than 20,000 volunteers were helping lay about six million feet of cable in a project sponsored and organized by private technology companies, dubbed Net Day. It was unclear how many schools would be wired by the end of the day but the hope is to wire 20 percent of California's schools by the end of the current school year.

    "We are putting the future at the fingertips of your children, and we are doing it together in the best American tradition," Clinton told students, parents and teachers at an outdoor rally at Ygnacio Valley High School east of San Francisco Bay. "We must not send our children into a 21st century unprepared for the world they will inhabit and the jobs they will have to fill."

    Clinton and Vice President Al Gore first announced the project in San Francisco last fall, and the President has since made it a staple of his campaign appearances around the country as he seeks to portray himself as the candidate of the future. Clinton's emphasis on computerizing schools is part of his continuing effort to speak out in favor of popular, nonpartisan ideas that do not require new Federal money or regulations.

    About 200 private companies and volunteers coordinated by Sun Microsystems combined forces to organize Saturday's event. The President has proposed shifting $2 billion in planned education spending over five years into a fund to help match state and local government and private sector efforts around the nation, though it is far from clear that the Republican-controlled Congress will approve his plan.

    Clinton highlighted the goal in his State of the Union address in January, and today Gore joined the President on the platform and likened the effort to President John F. Kennedy's commitment in the early 1960's to send a man to the moon by the end of the decade. Of course, that program entailed vast outlays of public funds in a major race with the Soviet Union, while the current effort is overwhelmingly voluntary.

    Corporate sponsors of the effort include MCI, Netcom and America OnLine. In all, more than 3,000 Net Day kits were mailed to schools around the state, each worth about $500, and including 2,000 feet of cable and enough plugs to wire the school library and six classrooms. The wire is brought to a central point, then spread down the hallways through ceilings and heat ducts to hook up as many a dozen computers.

    In some schools, corporations donated computer hardware as well, and the Government has also contributed some surplus computers to individual schools. Gore said the next step would be to try and connect schools in the six impoverished urban areas covered by the Federal Empowerment Zone program, which offers tax incentives and other aid to communities that organize economic redevelopment plans.

    The most recent figures from the Department of Education show that half of the nation's schools now have access to the Internet, up from 35 percent in 1994, and well ahead of the estimated 6 percent of the general public with either Internet or on-line access. The number of individual classrooms connected have increased to 9 percent from 3 percent in the last two years.

    Connections are most common at high schools, with 65 percent connected, up from 49 percent a year earlier.

    What to make of the connections is another question. Proponents say the effort will give students access to an vast array of research and learning tools, but critics say the flood of new technology could promote a hodge-podge teaching and learning style, instead of disciplined curriculum. In addition, many public school buildings are old enough that they will have problems simply accommodating the new wiring needs.

    Addressing criticisms that the President should not be promoting technology when many schools remain in disrepair and lack basic necessities. Clinton said that if students have high-tech skills, "our school districts will be wealthier and better." He said that the same volunteers who are laying cable on Saturday could volunteer to do fix-up work as well.

    The appearance here by Clinton and Gore was augmented by Education Secretary Richard Riley in San Diego, Commerce Secretary Ron Brown in Sacramento and the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Reed Hundt, in Los Angeles, and all were linked to the festivities here electronically.

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