Racial ‘Digital Gap’ Report Sparks Controversy

Published November 1, 2006

According to a study released in September by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, a digital divide between white, black, and Hispanic students nationwide exists and is getting deeper.

Predictably, some education reformers are calling for government action to close it. Others, however, contend it will take a real national school choice effort to close the gap created by socioeconomic status.

The study, Computer and Internet Use by Students in 2003, tracks and compares computer and Internet use by students from preschool though 12th grade, by race, in school and at home. The digital gap between white students and African-American and Hispanic students in using computers at home is wide, according to the report: 78 percent of white students, 48 percent of Hispanics, and 46 percent of African-American students reported using a computer and the Internet at home.

The report says differences in the rates of computer use are smaller at school: 85 percent of white students, 82 percent of African-Americans, and 80 percent of Hispanics reported having computer and Internet access at school.

Racial Inequality

Mark Lloyd, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington, DC-based educational research institute, said the gap in home computer and Internet use between students of different races stems from other inequalities.

“In America, there is a very strong gap between the economically oppressed and the educationally oppressed [and those who are not oppressed], with the largest gap being between Hispanics and African-Americans to whites,” Lloyd said. “Because of the historical [oppression] that Latino and African-Americans faced, currently they just don’t have the same networks that whites have to jobs and other opportunities. This adds up to less money to spend at home.”

Lloyd said that in order to bridge the digital divide, policymakers must address the issue nationally.

“Programs such as Link-Up [a federally funded telephone discount program] should not be reserved just for extremely poor families,” Lloyd said. “The [Link-Up] program should not only provide support for telephone service, but for broadband service as well.”

Underlying Problem

But Andrew Coulson, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, said the racial digital divide is only a symptom of the real problem, and having the government address it with a technology program will hasten the rate at which the gap is closed by a year or two at best, because technology prices are falling continually.

“If we really want to reduce our nation’s racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps, there are far better solutions than expanding the government’s role in education,” Coulson said. “Both the test scores and graduation rates of students participating in private school choice programs exceed those of similar students trapped in the public schools. And these gains are most noticeable for African-American children–those that the NCES study finds to have the least access to the Internet at home.

“Empowering parents by expanding access to school choice would thus have a far more dramatic impact on the lives of disadvantaged children than a subsidy for Internet access,” Coulson said.

Coulson pointed out the lack of choice widens the gap: “Hastening the spread of Internet use by a year or two will have no long-term effect on our achievement gaps, because it would not address the root cause of those gaps: The wealthy already have at least some level of school choice in this country, only the poor do not,” he noted.

“Until we address that fundamental inequity,” Coulson said, “everything else amounts to reupholstering the deck chairs on the sinking Titanic.”

Daschell M. Phillips ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in Chicago.

For more information …

“Computer and Internet Use by Students in 2003: A Statistical Report,” issued by the National Center for Education Statistics, Institute for Education Sciences, in September 2006, is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to http://www.policybot.org and search for document #19826.