House OKs bill to boost tech at minorities' schools

California State University campuses in Turlock and Fresno, as well as Merced College, among others, could get a piece of the $250 million-plus House package. Grants would pay for the equipment and training needed to bring wireless access to some schools, and expand it at others.

That basically means fast laptop access to the Internet, which has evolved rapidly from coffeehouse luxury to campus necessity.

"It's something that folks now con- sider as a given," University of California at Merced spokeswoman Patti Waid Istas said. "It's when you don't have it that it becomes an issue."

UC Merced already is set up for universal wireless access, which Istas said is "one of the benefits of starting a new campus in the 21st century." Older colleges, though, are trying to boost what they have.

California State University, Stanislaus, for instance, identifies its library's reference section and group study area as the places to go for wireless access. Wireless access is available in various locations throughout the CSU, Fresno, campus, but not in all of the dormitories.

"We have a plan to eventually have coverage everywhere, but there are challenges to doing it," noted Richard Boes, the campus's director of information technology services.

Boes noted, for instance, that the school's student union is not configured for wireless. Because the student union wasn't built with state university funds, Boes explained, university funds can't be used for adding the service. Federal funds, though, could help.

The legislation allows for individual cost-share grants totaling $2.5 million. The money could pay for what the legislation describes as "digital and wireless networking technologies," as well as necessary training.

"Many colleges, especially minority serving institutions, do not have the resources to build these networks on their own," noted Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash.

Legislation heads for the Senate

Similar bills were introduced in previous years, but never were brought up for a vote while Republicans ran Congress. Tuesday, Democratic leaders had set up the bill for routine passage. It passed with a vote of 331-59 in the House and now will have to be reconciled with the Senate. It won the support of rank-and-file Republicans, as well, although Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, raised "some concern" about the price tag.

The bill provides $250 million for next year and an unspecified amount of money in future years. The grants target schools with large Latino, native Hawaiian, Alaskan native and American Indian populations, as well as historically black colleges and universities.

"This is a lot of money for a very lim-ited group of institutions," Hall cautioned.

The grant program marks only the latest congressional effort to assist what formally are known as Latino-serving institutions. Earlier this year, the House passed a separate bill that pro- vided a 45 percent increase in funding for Latino-serving institutions.

Certified by the federal Department of Education, these are schools where Latinos account for at least 25 percent of student enrollment. At least 61 colleges and universities in California fit the bill, and more are on the way.

At Fresno City College, nearly 40 percent of the students are Latino, as are 35 percent at Merced College. Nine California State University campuses qual-ify.

So far, none of the University of California campuses has been designated as a Latino-serving institution. But with the assistance of Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, UC Merced officials are pushing ahead to win certification. They expect that it will become final once the school is formally accredited.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com or 202-383-0006.