There are lots of things that could improve the education of inner-city public school students, increasing their chances to lead productive adult lives. Better instruction in basic skills like reading, writing, and arithmetic would lead the list. Access to the Internet would be a low priority.
Without basic learning skills, Internet access is more a hindrance than an aid to education.
Anyone can play arcade games, watch distasteful videos, listen to vulgar music, and have inane online conversations with friends.. To learn things of lasting value, however, one cannot enter cyberspace empty-handed or empty-headed.
Youngsters who can barely read or write cannot benefit from Internet access. They just can't. Spending money on something from which they cannot benefit is a misallocation of scarce resources.
Nevertheless, Internet access is regarded by many school administrators as a magic elixir that will compensate for parental neglect and pedagogical malpractice and raise their educational charges to the educational level of peers in better schools.
It's a feel-good thing, too, like an expensive stadium for a losing football team.
The economically challenged East St. Louis School District sure went for it.
ESL contracted with SBC Global Services to upgrade its Internet and wireless systems and agreed to pay 10 percent of the costs, with the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) picking up the difference (nearly $1.5 million).
USAC runs the E-Rate program, which subsidizes technology purchases for economically disadvantaged districts.
Complications arose, however, and USAC reduced its subsidy, leaving East St. Louis on the hook for 72 percent of the cost.
Now SBC is suing ESL in St. Clair County Circuit Court for $686,707.20, plus interest.
It's hard to fathom how anyone – ESL, SBC, or USAC – could have thought that Internet access was worth more than $1.5 million to the students of East St. Louis. Perhaps adults at all three institutions need some remedial courses in math, teaching skills and the value of common sense.