Senator introduces plans for National Digital Empowerment Act

Money for school technology would double, community centers could tap into federal technology discounts and a national corps of volunteers would fight the "digital divide" under a plan announced Monday by a Maryland senator.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who calls herself one of the "tech senators," plans to introduce her National Digital Empowerment Act during the congressional session that kicked off Monday. The act is designed to improve technology education and narrow the nation's digital divide.

The digital divide is the gap between those who have access to computers and the Internet and those who do not for socioeconomic and geographic reasons.

"We need a national framework to get the national problems tied into the states," Mikulski said at the State of Technology in Maryland 2000 conference in Annapolis. "Teacher training and [other programs] have to be a national effort; the states can't do it on their own."

Mikulski's proposal focuses on seven areas:

* Creating a "one stop shop" for all federal education programs.

* Improving technology education.

* Expanding the E-rate program.

* Creating an "E-corps" within Americorps.

* Putting technology in public housing.

* Providing technology for community-based organizations.

* Using the tax code to create incentives for businesses to donate technology and maintenance to schools and communities.

"I'll be looking for some co-sponsorship in the House, and I hope to get at least part of it passed in September, but I think it's going to take at least 18 months to get all the way there," Mikulski said. "It will take this session and part of the next to get it all done."

Specifically, Mikulski's legislation would double federal assistance for schools acquiring technology equipment and would enable schools to use that funding for computer maintenance. It also would create 500 "Teacher Tech Academies" throughout the country to help educators use technology in the classroom.

Mikulski wants to expand the E-rate program, which currently offers discounts of 20 percent to 90 percent on telecommunications services, Internet access and internal connections to K-12 public and private schools and public libraries. She also would like community centers and structured after-school activities to benefit from the discounts.

Lastly the act calls for the creation of an E-corps within the Americorps volunteer system. E-corps volunteers would help teachers use technology in the classroom and help at after-school programs that feature computers and other technologies.

The legislation would help pay for technology in community-based organizations by asking for triple the current funding of $700 million to reach a goal of $2.5 billion in the next three years.

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