E-Rate Reform is Essential to Educational Equality

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The 1996 Telecommunications Act that continues to govern our interactions with the Internet is, as we all know too well, out of date, and out of its depth. While there is little political appetite for a complete overhaul of the legislation, many sections of the law are up for review. This is the case with the E-rate program that was created under the principle of universal access to advanced telecommunications services at reasonable rates, and regardless of location, for everyone. Now, of course, the most pressingly important “telecommunications service” is internet access.

The E-Rate program -- as part of the broader Schools and Libraries Program -- provides discounts so schools and libraries can obtain affordable Internet access, and is funded through a universal fee charged to telecommunications companies.

Between 1994 and 1999, Department of Education Surveys show that internet access in public schools rose from 35 to 95 percent, and access in classrooms rose from 3 to 63 percent. By 2005, GAO calculations suggest that over 100,000 schools had benefited from the program.

Despite this astronomical progress, we are technologically a long way from 1999. In our current Internet age, simply being connected is not enough. According to administration fact-finding, fewer than 20 percent of educators say their school’s Internet connection is meeting teaching needs. With a clear need for better service, the goal of reforming E-Rate under the new ConnectED program is to provide 99 percent of classrooms and libraries with high-speed broadband and wireless access within five years. The plan will also provide better broadband access for students in rural areas by working to attract investment in the infrastructure required.

Schools and libraries need high-speed broadband connections to take advantage of new learning technologies that promise better educational experiences and outcomes, and expanded opportunities for students and communities, regardless of socio-economic standing, or ability to pay.

For example, taking the new Common Core tests online must not be a disadvantage for those students who do not have access to a computer at home. With computers and high-speed internet access in 99 percent of schools across the country, all students will be exposed, and become accustomed, to digital learning.

Leaving students behind has far-reaching implications. According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life report, 84 percent of Advanced Placement and National Writing Project teachers raised the issue of increasing disparities between low- and high-income students and school districts regarding access to technology.

As we wrote previously, the children that get left behind technologically at an early age might not go on to study STEM subjects at high-school or beyond, and as a result they will not be able to a secure one of the highest paying jobs that do much to push the economy forward.

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“When half the youth population is falling behind their peers, it’s bad news for the future of American innovation. When the half left behind is from the lower end of the socio-economic scale, it perpetuates the message that prosperity and success is only for those born into privilege and opportunity. To change the message, we need to change the reality.”

In 2003 nearly half of E-Rate funding went to schools where more than half of the students receive reduced price lunches. E-Rate reform is about equality as much as it is about education. It is about inclusion, and the ability of all students to gain skills relating to the Internet economy.

As FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel argued: “If we bring all of our schools up to really high-speed broadband and we do it at scale, we’re going to send a signal to the marketplace for content creators, for device manufacturers. We are going to create opportunities for them to develop new tools and ideas and new content for schools across the country.”

“Knowledge, jobs and capital are going to flow to those places where we have better infrastructure in our schools and the world is not waiting for us,” she said. “If we pioneered connecting all of our schools, what we’re finding out now is that other nations are ahead of us.”

But the biggest hurdle to reform is not an agreement on its scope or necessity. The biggest pain-point is the dearth of funds and how to get about getting more money into the program.

The Consortium for School Networking released a survey where 99 percent of responding school districts indicated the need for additional internet bandwidth and connectivity in the next 36 months. Over 90 percent of school districts then claimed cost -- up-front and recurring -- as the main reason the current system is not meeting their needs.

The American Association of School Administrators and the Association of Educational Service Agencies also submitted a brief that encapsulated the issue of funding: “The E‐Rate program is capped at just over $2.3 billion of the Universal Service Fund. This amount had remained frozen at $2.25 billion until 2011, when the program received a slight inflationary adjustment. Even with this very modest increase in funding,schools and libraries apply for E‐Rate discounts that far exceed the available funding. In fact, demand in 2013 exceeded $5 billion, more than double the available funding, meaning more applications go unfunded than receive funding...The single most effective thing the FCC can do to bolster the E‐Rate program’s effectiveness in not only providing connectivity, but also expanded connectivity, is to more adequately fund E‐Rate.”

Education districts that still want to add their voice to the debate have until October 16 (see note below) to comment, and a database of all existing comments is available here.

Broadband access through E-rate reform is another essential component of large-scale education reform that will build a strong foundation to foster sustainable attainment improvements, and the government is ready to act. Michael Steffen, director of digital learning at the FCC confirmed:

"We are at a special moment in education technology and the possibilities that it creates. That idea has created enthusiasm for really pushing on this issue in the near term ... all the way up to the President of the United States, but also the chair of our oversight committee in the Senate, the secretary of education, the leadership here at the commission — all the commissioners are very engaged in this. That confluence of things doesn't happen that often."

Note: As of 10/2/2013, due to the government shutdown, FCC proceedings on E-Rate are at a standstill. The FCC's online filing system is down so you will not be able to submit comments until the government reopens. While the comments were originally due on October 16, the shutdown means an automatic deadline extension. When the government reopens, the FCC will return to normal operations the following day, and comments will be due the day after that.

But you can still file. The International Society for Technology in Education has opened their own filing system so store comments and they will hand them off to the FCC when the shutdown ends.

Image via wikimedia commons.