n their face, the numbers released yesterday spelling
out the Board of Education's plan to link students to the
Internet are so astronomical as to appear preposterous.
How could the board, which regularly says it cannot afford to
maintain schools or hire enough qualified teachers, contemplate
spending $900 million over 10 years to build an educational Web
site and provide portable computers, Internet service and e-
mail to most of its students, teachers and administrators?
In fact, the Board of Education expects that it will not have
to spend anywhere near that amount. Rather, it is depending on
the corporate world — computer makers like I.B.M. and Toshiba,
Internet companies like America Online, and network companies
like Cisco Systems — to see the potential value of 2.2 million
new customers, especially because the people in this group,
including parents, are likely to be using computers and Internet
services for the rest of their lives.
According to Andersen Consulting, which this week gave board
members an analysis of the proposal's feasibility, the group of
potential users of the board's Internet site is so valuable that
the companies would be willing to lay out a large share of the
start-up cost, if not all of it. More important, the site could
raise as much as $11 billion in revenues over 10 years, money
the board could use over time to buy equipment and keep the
Even at the far lower level of revenues that Andersen
predicts is more likely, $4 billion over 10 years, the system
would pay for itself several times over, the report says.
Here is one example of how such a system might work:
According to the Andersen report, America Online spends more
than $280 on marketing for each new customer that signs up for
its online service. Therefore, acquiring 2.2 million customers,
a group the size of the Board of Education's audience, would
cost America Online more than $600 million.
The Board of Education reasons that America Online, or a
similar provider of Internet services, may be willing to help
the board build its commercial-free educational Web site and a
separate customized Internet gateway carrying advertising, in
exchange for the right to sell advertising on that gateway.
In addition, the customized Internet gateway — basically a
companion to the educational site that would connect users to
the Internet — could include pages where a user could buy
products from companies that contracted with the board. For each
purchase of books or school uniforms, the board would get part
of the revenues as a fee from the seller.
The complete system could also be offered for sale to school
districts in other large cities, raising more revenues for the
Such a deal might be worth the cost to a company like America
Online because a student would have to use the Board of
Education's system to send and receive e-mail messages, to
receive and complete assignments or to communicate with
teachers. More important for such a company, a student may be
more likely to continue using its service after leaving for
college, becoming a paying customer.
"The system could be entirely paid for independent of the
traditional government funding structure," and without using any
money currently going to the city's schools, said Andrew Rasiej
(pronounced rah- SHAY), the founder of Mouse, a nonprofit agency
that provides technology support to schools. He is also a member
of the Board of Education task force that introduced the
"I can't see how anybody could be a critic," Mr. Rasiej
Critics abound, however. Though the Board of Education's plan
contemplates keeping the advertising and commercial aspects
separate from the commercial-free educational Web site, and
allowing parents to control their children's access to the
commercial content, critics have contended that the school
system would be selling out its students for a dubious goal.
"My greatest concern is that in the rush to put laptops in
the hands of every child, we would expand dependency on
commercial advertising to fund public education," said State
Senator Velmanette Montgomery, a Democrat from Brooklyn who
wrote to her constituents this summer to raise questions about
the board's plan. "Ultimately, the brands and products being
advertised, rather than our children, would reap most of the
Harold O. Levy, the schools chancellor, said in an interview
that he was not worried about the use of advertising to pay for
the system. "It's no more troubling than allowing Webster to put
its name on the dictionaries we buy," Mr. Levy said.
Clearly, technology companies are eager to participate in the
program. Representatives from Cisco, International Business
Machines and Toshiba were on the task force that created the
technology plan. And Board of Education officials said that the
task force was allowed to disband after issuing its
recommendations in April in part to allow those companies to
eventually bid on providing services to the board.
It is possible that the board will have to lay out some cash
upfront, to buy the computers for students and teachers and to
build the network needed for using those computers in the
classroom and at home.
But the Board of Education is hoping it can pay as little as
$200 apiece for the portable computers, which are known as
Internet appliances. Unlike fully functional laptops, these
computers would work only when connected to the board's
"It is a way to make computers available to children who
otherwise would not have access to the digital world," Mr. Levy
said. If it takes a financial inducement for a company to help
the Board of Education do that, he said, so be