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Charlotte Tech Wars 

It's a standard plot/character element of science fiction: computers gain too much power and try to control individuals and occasionally take over the world. The Matrix is based on this concept, not to mention Bladerunner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Terminator and West World, among others. Science fiction isn't tapping into this theme randomly, either. Humans have a tendency to fear new technology, which has probably been true since rubbing sticks together to make fire was the equivalent of Windows XP.

Of course, there is reason to fear new technology. Humans can do terrible things with power when they have it. There are certain groups of people who will always channel new technology into advanced weapons, which is why we now have things like smart bombs. I imagine there were primitive humans who did terrible things with fire when they first got hold of it. Science fiction writers tend to project this destructive inclination onto the technology itself, which is why the robots of The Matrix are intent on using or killing humans. When we fear the powerful robots in sci-fi flicks, though, we're really channeling our fear of human beings who might use technology for terrible things.

Rather than being fearful of technology itself turning against us, we should fear that it will be turned against us. This distinction is crucial when forming our attitudes toward technology. If we give in to technophobia, we wind up fighting off new ideas as much as we can. This will never be enough to keep technological advances from happening, though, because people who want power understand that technology can be used to get it. Eventually, only smart people with evil intentions will know anything about the new technology, whatever it is, and the rest of us will be ignorant and powerless to stop them.

If we understand that technology is neither good nor bad, but whatever people make of it, then we're comfortable learning about its uses. In this scenario, the powermongers will never have a monopoly on the technology and they won't be able to control it (and us).

This kind of philosophical battle is being waged in Charlotte right now. Dr. Eric Smith, superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, and Arthur Griffin, of CMS school board fame, have joined forces for once to combat a new North Carolina charter school.

It's not exactly news that the school district is opposed to charter schools. Charter schools, of course, take kids and per-kid state money away from public schools, who desperately need state money to print glossy full-color folders with pictures of happy, smart-looking children on them. Seriously, as the Charlotte Observer has pointed out, many charter school students end up returning to CMS by the end of the year, even though the state money doesn't. Many of the people who start charter schools have even less of an idea than CMS (eek!) about how to educate kids, and that's why parents eventually send their kids back to public school. So I understand the CMS stance on charter schools since public schools do ultimately get the shaft.

But this new charter school apparently has Dr. Smith and Mr. Griffin really worried because it's an idea with actual merit, merit that in fact hits CMS in its tender underbelly of educational weakness. The new charter school, called New Connections, is to be a virtual school, meaning that classes will be conducted online using computers. Students from anywhere in the state will be able to enroll in the school, which will provide the hardware and software the students need.

I happen to believe in the power of face-to-face interpersonal communication and I think that most kids truly need frequent, if not constant, involvement with other people, so I don't think this virtual school is all it's cracked up to be. It's probably not going to provide top-notch education for anybody, least of all the non-traditional, troubled students to whom the new school seems targeted. Nonetheless, I'm alarmed by the CMS reaction to New Connections.

Dr. Smith and Mr. Griffin are actively trying to keep this school from even coming into existence because they fear that it will attract CMS students. Though they haven't said so, what they know is that technology is an enormous weakness in CMS. Schools in our district simply don't have the up-to-date technology they need to teach students the computer skills they'll require in actual job situations. This isn't a problem for the upper and middle class students. Those kids have computers and other technology at home, and they learn to use it proficiently very early.

The kids who aren't learning about technology are the troubled, typically low-socioeconomic status students that the new charter school is targeting. Access to and knowledge of technology are precisely what New Connections offers these kids.

That's why the CMS response to the virtual charter school is troubling. Instead of willingly recognizing the strengths of such a program and making a commitment to providing those things to the kids who need it, the superintendent and the school board chairman are instead trying to keep the school from even existing.

Frankly, I don't think New Connections is going to be a huge success. They've erroneously eliminated the interpersonal connections between the student and other students, and the student and teachers, that are the basis of true education. But I'm disappointed that our school district doesn't know a good idea when it sees one. Further, I'm horrified that CMS is willing to continue participating in the oppression of children with low socioeconomic status by depriving them of access to new technology. Without that access and that knowledge, they will be powerless when faced with the people who do control it. *

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