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NYC Schools as Hi-Tech Hubs

New York's public schools and universities may be emerging as hi-tech hubs. Recently, there have been a number of federal, state and private sector initiatives that will improve Internet resources, wireless access and technological innovation at city schools and universities.

Internet Resources

Mayor Bloomberg's focus on improving NYC schools and his background as a technology-savvy chief executive officer may be an ideal combination. Last month, he and NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein announced Power to Learn, an online learning community for parents, students and educators. The Power to Learn Web site connects users to over 1,300 schools and libraries.

However, while the Power to Learn site is commercial free, it is sponsored by Cablevision. This may raise concern among those opposed to private sector funding for public education. "Corporate partnerships provide additional resources to help our students in school," said Chancellor Klein.

Expanding educational resources sounds like a benign goal, but one worries that it may be the sign of a growing trend. This could be particularly problematic if private-sector money is substituted for government funding for public schools, and even justify additional cuts.

The federal government also supports public-private partnerships. Recently, Samuel Gompers Vocational and Technical High School in the Bronx was the last stop on U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige's 25-city tour across the country to promote several federal programs, including one about technology.

"Technology is connecting parents to teachers," Secretary Paige said. "And, it is helping connect parents to assessments so we can measure the progress of every student. Partnerships among schools, businesses, parents and entire communities are equally important if we're to make sure no child is left behind."

However, private sector funding does not rectify the problem that schools are still funded primarily through local property taxes. This structure cripples low-income schools while suburban schools in wealthy neighborhoods thrive.

But, despite a rash of corporate scandal, 'social entrepreneurship' is starting to get more attention.

Wireless Access

The No Child Left Behind Act (one of the programs the education secretary was promoting) provides some three billion dollars to schools this year, and also allows states and local districts more control over federal funds.

Recently, IBM has agreed to "unwire" New York City schools under the E-rate program (another program the secretary was promoting), which subsidizes technology for schools by up to 90 percent. In other words, a wireless access point will only cost schools $75 under the plan rather than $1000. The E-rate program has already provided $500 million in technology funding to New York City schools since its establishment in 1997.

IBM will upgrade all 12,000 NYC public schools with wireless Internet access, which will allow more computers to be connected and more students to get online. While educators debate over the value of using technology in the classroom, it is vital that all students learn to use technology for common everyday tasks such as e-mail and research. Those who do not may find themselves unable to access jobs, which require familiarity with technology.

Schools outfitted with wireless access could also become wireless hubs for their surrounding communities. This would provide the basis for a free, public wireless network such as NYCwireless. Since schools are found throughout New York City, they are ideal centers for expanding the city's information infrastructure.

Technological Innovation

At the higher education level, the City University of New York has just received $7.5 million from the State Assembly to create a network of high-tech incubators. Incubators are hubs that provide office space along with administrative, legal and financial support for small start-up businesses. Over the next five years, the incubators are expected to support 200 businesses and create 5,000 jobs in low-income communities.

Currently, three community colleges are planning to open incubators that target the needs of small businesses in different industries. La Guardia in Long Island City will focus on design, Hostos in the Bronx will target health care, and Borough of Manhattan with sites in Lower Manhattan and Harlem will be a hub for entertainment and video game start-ups.

Four additional incubators are planned pending an extra $7.5 million from the state. Specifically, Hunter College is planning to house a biotechnology incubator Experts have long bemoaned the lack of connection between New York City's hospitals, which are the best in the country, and biotechnology companies in and around the city.

In addition, New York City College of Technology is well-suited to become an information services and communications hub. Despite the recent problems of the information technology and telecommunications sector, the industry has the potential to contribute to the city's economy in the long-run.

Thus far, NYC has done a relatively poor job at moving university research from the laboratory into the boardroom when compared to Boston or Silicon Valley. Perhaps this is because science takes second place in this town to finance, fashion, law, media and entertainment.

In contrast, Boston and Silicon Valley have succeeded in capitalizing on their university links and creating clusters of high-tech firms grown directly out of university innovations. It is hoped that New York City will focus on building links between both private and public universities and private companies so that new core competencies can emerge to boost the city's economy.

The City's Information Infrastructure Improved Internet resources, wireless access and technological innovation are all important to our public schools and universities and to the city's information infrastructure.

Private sector funding for these initiatives may have a role to play, but it must be clear that corporate sponsorship of city schools can only supplement government funding in this area. It is not a solution to the problem of under-funded schools and under-paid teachers and faculty members.

Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.

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