When I went to school in Washington, D.C., during the early 1970s, I took my education for granted. My high school was on the edge of historic Georgetown, a safe place, and down the street from where I lived. The school was in good condition and the teachers were some of the city's best. As a result, my high school had one of the highest percentages of students graduating and attending college.

But most high schools in the city were different. They were located in rough neighborhoods, the buildings were in bad shape and some teachers were mediocre at best. Drop-out rates were high and fewer students attended college. Many of my friends and hundreds of classmates lived near these schools, but wanted what I had. They willingly transferred out and endured bus rides as long as two hours just so they could attend my high school.

Lack of access to something so fundamental as education, and the price that must be paid to have it, is not always apparent to those who take access for granted.

Consider the Internet. Skyrocketing growth in users has led many to believe that universal access is around the corner. But only 23 percent of African-Americans have Internet access, according to a 1999 survey by Forrester Research, a Cambridge, Mass.-based firm. Buttressing those figures is a 1998 study that shows whites are more than twice as likely to own a computer as blacks and Hispanics. Larry Irving, deputy secretary for the Department of Commerce, which conducted the study, said that for many Americans, access online is still beyond their grasp.

It's not just the federal government that's concerned about this problem. Equal access to online services is the civil rights issue of the 21st century, according to America Online Chairman Steve Case. Speaking at the National Press Club in May, Case said, "It's a question of how we make these tools available to all Americans."

For many free market advocates, it's a question of letting the marketplace create the choices that will enable the poor and minorities to enjoy the fruits of the Information Revolution. Certainly the recent drop in PC prices has fueled the belief that the market, not mandates, will level the playing field. Even the Federal Communications Commission has subscribed to that view. With the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the FCC said that, unlike telephone service, it won't regulate the Internet and make it universal.

But because of the rapid pace of change, minorities and the poor face being left further behind, both economically and educationally. In Austin, Texas, a hotbed of high-tech industry, 70 percent of homes have PCs, while only 7 percent have them in East Austin, where the Hispanic community is centered. That number mirrors the overall online access rate for Hispanics in central cities; in rural areas, it's 7.3 percent. For blacks in central cities, the number falls to 5.8 percent and to 5.5 percent in rural areas, according to the Department of Commerce.

If the marketplace hasn't set things right yet, maybe the Clinton administration's E-rate program will. Under it, schools and libraries receive discounts of up to 90 percent on telecommunications services and Internet access. But E-rate still doesn't bring the Internet into the homes of the nation's poor. A new report issued by The College Board concludes that information technologies may deepen the divide between educational haves and have-nots. According to the report, the marketplace alone will not fix the problem; policy-makers must work to ensure a level playing field.

This country's government sometimes recognizes that we all should have rights to certain basic necessities: old-age pensions through Social Security, affordable housing and education through the GI Bill, and dial-tone into every home through the universal access rule. Now it's time to add another right to the list: affordable and universal access to the Internet, regardless of race or income.

Like that gulf between my high school and the rest in Washington, D.C., we can't take for granted that Internet access for all will just happen. We have to make it happen.

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Tod Newcombe  |  Features Editor