WHY HAVE both the president and vice president of the United States promised to be in California Saturday to ''wire'' schools into the Internet and World Wide Web?
Politics, you'll say -- and in 1996, it often seems there's nothing else. But the ''Netday96" drawing Messrs. Clinton and Gore carries deeper significance. Tens of thousands of Californians -- technicians and lay people alike -- are volunteering to install jacks and connectors, run network wires between school libraries, computer labs and classrooms.
That means California schools, even some in desperately poor areas, are taking a massive step onto the Information Highway. President Clinton can't get close enough to the event, calling Netday96 ''the biggest next step in our campaign to make sure that by the year 2000 every single classroom and every single library in this country will be hooked up to the Internet.''
Netday96 had an immaculately unpolitical conception, in the hands of two Californians impatient to leap fiscal and bureaucratic barriers and get kids and their schools connected. One was John Gage, chief scientist at Sun Microsystems Inc., the other Michael Kaufman, director of information technology at public television station KQED-TV in San Francisco.
Mr. Gage explains that the speed of the wiring Netday96 volunteers are installing in California's schools will link computers to instant global communication. The installations are ''Category 5'' twisted copper wire. They permit communication speed thousands of times the performance of ordinary modems hooked to regular telephone lines.
The result: an open window to interactive video, to real-time dialogue with information sources, classrooms, communities on all continents.
Even young people routinely turned off by run-of-the-mill textbooks become excited, Mr. Gage says, by exploring the Internet: ''Teachers stop being purveyors of information they pour into kids. They become guides -- a whole new role.''
There's no proof that kids turned on to the Internet will end up proficient in math, science and language. But studies already show that television watching (the visual narcotic of our time) declines in 64 percent of families with computers, indeed declines 75 percent in families whose computers have CD-ROMS and multimedia capability.
Children who go on-line are more likely to be involved in sports, the arts and volunteer activities. And engaged kids usually have higher grades.
The newly released ''KickStart Initiative'' report from the U.S. Advisory Council on the National Information Infrastructure is chock-full of stories of how those in plugged-in communities and schools are getting better connected, improving academic records, boosting incomes.
Take heavily Latino, immigrant-packed Union City, New Jersey. America's most densely populated community. Its test scores and dropout rate were so alarming that state takeover was threatened. Then with special state funds and a partnership with Bell Atlantic, 775 computers were installed (one for every 11 students). At Christopher Columbus School, all seventh-graders had a computer installed at home, too. Absenteeism plummeted and test scores leapt 10 points above the statewide average in reading, math and writing.
The information highway, Vice President Gore claims, not only enlivens kids' minds but can break down the enervating isolation -- isolation from jobs, from informal networks of information, from transportation -- suffered by people in poor neighborhoods.
No one disputes that billions of dollars will be needed to buy enough up-to-date computers for America's classrooms and to retrain teachers to integrate computer software and Internet access into their curriculums. But one can sense the ground shifting -- from whether can we afford those billions of dollars to how the process can be accelerated.
End runs around slow-moving, bureaucratic school systems will be imperative. Note the highly unconventional tactics Jack Gage and his friends used to organize Netday in California. Volunteers were recruited the new-tech way, through a web page -- address, http: //www.netday96.com.
(Check that page on your own computer: It includes a California map with globs of yellow -- schools with sufficient volunteers -- and red -- ones still uncovered. With clicks of the mouse, you can tell whether any school in that whole vast state is covered.)
Gage & Co. didn't try to tap the public till for their project -- instead they successfully solicited big-time contributions of equipment and on-line time from communications megacorporations: Pacific Telesis, AT&T, MCA, Apple, MCI, Xerox, Sprint and others. Of course, it's just good business for these firms: Get young people hooked on advanced telecommunications, and they'll have customers for life.
But there has to be volunteer accountability, Mr. Gage insists. The web page will show, for example, what percentage of a company's California-based employees actually showed up for the school wiring. The page will also post volunteer grade cards for all schools and school districts.
Consider what's converging here -- a statewide volunteer effort, a big corporate role, bypassing the schools' bureaucracies, rapid movement toward telecommunications access for even the poorest schools, and public accountability.
Forget the politics. What we're really seeing is the emergence of a new formula for a resilient society -- not by doctrine but by deed.
Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.
Pub Date: 3/07/96