WASHINGTON - Linking reading to technology, the White House marshaled major book publishers to provide more than $250 million in free e-books to low-income students and is seeking commitments from local governments and schools across the country to ensure that every student has a library card.
President Barack Obama announced the two initiatives Thursday at a Washington library as part of his two-year-old ConnectED program that aims to improve education through digital connectivity.
The offer of e-books comes as low-income households still lag far behind others in computer ownership, but White House officials said libraries and schools in poor communities are increasing access to the Internet. Among the publishers participating in the program are such familiar names as Macmillan, Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House.
At the same time, Obama appealled to library directors, local governments and school officials to work together to provide universal access to library cards. The White House already has commitments from 30 cities and counties, ranging from Baltimore to San Francisco and points in between.
Obama's ConnectEd program aims to make broadband Internet access available to 99 percent of American students by 2018. Already, companies such as Apple have pledged to provide $100 million worth of devices to lower-income schools, said Jeff Zients, the director of the White House National Economic Council.
The announcement comes just two days after Obama called on Americans to do "some soul searching" in the wake of recurrent black deaths at the hands of police and riots that have shaken minority communities, most recently in Baltimore.
"If we're serious about living up to what our country is about, then we have to consider what we can do to provide opportunities in every community, not just when they're on the front page, but every day," Zients said.
A U.S. Census Bureau study of computer and Internet use issued in November found that in 2013 nearly 84 percent of households reported owning a computer. Among households with incomes under $25,000, however, only 62 percent said they owned a computer.
"They may not be on the grid at home," said Cecilia Munoz, director of Obama's Domestic Policy Council. But they certainly have Internet access at school, she said.