Ask a Presidential Candidate
Last night, PBS hosted a debate among the Democratic candidates running for president. After the event, I had a chance to speak with four of the candidates about their perceptions about the digital divide and the role schools might play in bridging it. The lesson learned: it’s hard to get more than a sound bite when the candidates are in spin mode.
The debate, hosted at Howard University in Washington DC, was the first presidential debate in which the moderator and questioners were all people of color. Moderated by Tavis Smiley, the 90-minute debate focused mostly on domestic issues that are of interest among minority voters.
I’d had high hopes that the debate would spend a bit of time focusing on the digital divide and the role of technology in education. This wasn’t just a random wish on my part; the debate’s website outlined the digital divide as one of the key domestic policy issues facing minority communities today. But in the course of the 90-minute debate, they were unable to address the topic. When you’ve got a gazillion candidates on stage who each want to talk as long as possible, 90 minutes gets eaten up rather quickly. So while they tackled issues ranging from this week’s Supreme Court ruling on school diversity plans to HIV/AIDS to Katrina, the digital divide and edtech didn’t have their moments in the spotlight.
Luckily for me, though, I watched the debate from the media center at Howard University. Immediately following the debate, each of the presidential campaigns sent their candidates or their proxies to the chaotic hall known as spin alley, where journalists and bloggers jammed mics and cameras in their faces, tripping over each other to ask them questions. There were at least four candidates in the hall - Bill Richardson, Christopher Dodd, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel - and I managed to ask each of them about what they would do to address the digital divide, particularly in the context of schools.
First up was Rep. Dennis Kucinich. I started by asking him if the digital divide were an issue to be dealt with by the federal government or other institutions. “Well, actually it’s an issue at all levels of government,” he explained, adding that Internet access should be seen as a public good just as any other local utility:
As mayor of Cleveland I helped to save a municipal utility, because I realized that this is a fundamental right in a democratic society - to have your own utility. Municipalities should be able to have that right. Well, municipalities should operate the Internet, and access to the Internet, wireless, as a public utility. And it should be free access. And people, the way you move through it, is that you have free access plus you make sure that every child has access and every family has access to a computer. I mean, this is fundamental in a democratic society, and it’s an investment that we should be prepared to make.
I then asked what role schools should play in providing that access. Kucinich, though, continued to focus on at-home access. “I mean, we should be making computers available to those families - a basic computer someone access. If someone wants to buy an upgrade or something, that’s their business. But basic access should be guaranteed. That’s the way we get rid of the digital divide.”
Sen. Christopher Dodd took a similar approach, addressing the issue from the perspective of broadband access, especially when it comes to rural communities:
obviously the broadband is important. We didn’t get a chance to talk about rural America too much [in the debate], and obviously having broadband access into parts of our country, inner cities and so forth, so these education gaps can be made up, by making sure the people have that access…. …I think the schools can play a very important role, obviously, but even more so in families - that ability to have that access in your home. Where your child can access the Library of Congress. Where some rural school district in the middle of Alaska or Wyoming is what we ought to be talking about here, rather than moving people out of rural areas to urban areas. Bringing economy and opportunity to rural America is something we ought to be talking about. The Internet is one of the wonderful ways that allows us to reach a constituency that otherwise would be very hard to reach under other circumstances.
Gov. Bill Richardson tackled the question somewhat more strategically, reflecting some of the policies that were in place during the Clinton administration:
There should be a national plan to have broadband across the country to narrow the digital divide. We should have science and math academies to produce more engineers, up our scores in science and math. And then lastly, I believe the federal government needs to say that the digital divide is real. That because our minorities, and in minority neighborhoods, don’t have the same access to computers. We need to take steps like have a computer for every child in the seventh grade - laptop computers. Find ways to increase computers in the home. Find ways for the federal government to play an active role in not just funding some of these programs but working with the IBMs, the Microsofts to provide more technology. Especially in minority communities.
Former Sen. Mike Gravel, perhaps best known for his blunt talk during the debates, didn’t respond directly to my question, instead using it as an opportunity to talk about his belief that the government shouldn’t regulate activity on the Internet. “The first rule is leave the Internet alone. Keep it free.” After lamenting regulations that would prevent gambling-related credit card transactions online, I tried to steer the conversation back towards education, asking specifically what needs to be done to improve technology literacy skills among young people. “I like the idea of putting computers in every classroom, in every classroom,” he said. “Particularly in the inner cities. No question. They are the future, and the future is electronic.”
Of course, I’d hoped to go into more depth with each candidate about these issues, not to mention ask similar questions to the candidates who didn’t visit after the debate, but that’s what the spin room is all about. Unless it’s an issue that a candidate wants to hammer home as a key policy issue of theirs, it’s difficult to get more than a few sound bites out of them. So between now and the election, I’ll dig deeper into the candidates’ positions on issues such as the digital divide, education technology and media literacy, and let you know what I find. And if I can get into the spin alley at the Republican debate that’s being organized by PBS in September, you can be sure I’ll have questions for them as well. -andy