ANNAPOLIS – Teachers would be taught how to use computers through a volunteer army, and classrooms would be fully digitally equipped under legislation proposed by U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D- Baltimore.
Mikulski said her bill is designed for faster universal access to information technology and the Internet, two tools that she said could mark the death of distance and discrimination nationwide.
Her bill, called the National Digital Empowerment Act, is expected to be introduced within the next 100 days.
The legislation would complement technology initiatives recently announced by Gov. Parris N. Glendening and state legislative leaders in their effort to make Maryland the premiere “digital” state in the country.
Mikulski, speaking to more than 200 high technology business leaders, educators, information technology workers and volunteers attending the third annual American Society of Mechanical Engineers summit in Annapolis, said her legislation is designed to break down the “digital divide” and to empower people through technology.
The digital divide refers to the disparity in advancement opportunities for citizens who understand and have access to computer technology versus those who don’t.
U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, who also spoke at the summit, said households earning $75,000 or more a year are more than 20 times as likely to have access the Internet than those making less.
“If your community is wired for the Internet, your future is bright,” Mikulski said. “If not, you’ll be functionally obsolete in the new century.”
Mikulski’s seven-part bill will include doubling federal assistance for schools to acquire and maintain computer hardware; creating 500 technology academies for teachers, five within Maryland; creating a so-called “E-corps,” of volunteers to teach students and teachers about information technology; and creating tax incentives for private businesses that donate technology, training and maintenance to schools and communities.
Mikulski said her goal is to use technology to remove income, race, ethnic or geographic barriers – and to have no more than five children for each computer in schools.
“This could mean the death of distance as a barrier for economic development,” she said. “For poor children of color, it could mean the death of discrimination and enable them to leapfrog into the future.”
News of Mikulski’s federal high-tech initiative comes on the heels of a Jan. 14 announcement by Glendening and legislative leaders of a series of Maryland-boosting electronic commerce and Internet bills called “eMaryland.” Their 13-point initiative, soon to be debated in the General Assembly, includes incentives to lure start-up high-tech companies and electronic commerce businesses to Maryland, while also making state resources more Internet-accessible.
Delegate Peter Franchot, D-Montgomery, co-chairman of a state commission on the Internet, said Mikulski’s bill complements the eMaryland proposal – and having an ally with Mikulski’s stature doesn’t hurt either.
“Since she comes from Maryland, she has a real interest in steering money appropriately to her home state,” he said. Mikulski is a senior Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
But money alone won’t make the bill a success.
Betsy Zaborowski, special programs director for the National Federation for the Blind, said she won’t be happy with the bill until it addresses web site designs that offer non-visual access to the Internet.
“It’s our only way to get into the Internet,” Zaborowski said. “It’s a real high-stakes issue for us.”
Karl Pence, a teacher and president of the 51,000-member Maryland State Teachers Association, said the bill seems to fit his organization’s goals, especially the teacher training programs.
“You can’t assume that if you throw a computer at me, that I’ll be able to use it,” Pence said.
The goal of the ASME summit is to assess Maryland’s technological health, to get high technology professionals talking, and to provide guidance for “developers of federal, state, regional, local and corporate strategies.”