Will the FCC ignore educators in modernizing key U.S. technology program?

(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

This post is a rebuttal to one that I published a few days ago about the federal “E-Rate” program — which offers discounts for schools and libraries to get Internet access and telecommunications — under the headline “A watershed moment for technology in education.” The earlier piece was co-written by Julius Genachowski, managing director of The Carlyle Group and former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, and Jim Coulter, a commissioner of the bi-partisan Leading Education by Advancing Digital Commission, and co-founder and chief executive officer of TPG Holdings. Genachowski and Coulter urged the Federal Communications Commission to approve at its meeting this Friday a plan to start to modernize the E-Rate program. Genachowski and Coulter wrote that the proposal “is a first step in this modernization, which redirects over $2 billion in existing E-Rate funds out of unnecessary reserves and into classroom Wi-Fi installations and upgrades” and that this “first step would positively impact six million students in the coming year.”

Opposing their view in the post below is Brian Lewis, chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), a nonprofit organization that serves more than 100,000 education stakeholders around the world by  supporting the use of information technology to aid in learning and teaching. Lewis, an entrepreneurial education nonprofit leader with deep experience in policy and advocacy, joined ISTE as CEO in 2012. He argues in the following piece that the proposal going before the FCC on Friday is inadequate and does not address suggestions filed by more than 600 educators on how to modernize the E-Rate program to meet their classroom needs.


By Brian Lewis

Summertime is hot in Washington, D.C., and there’s only one thing that makes it hotter – old-fashioned politics and the worn-out assumption that “big business knows best.”

Last week, after months of anticipation, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler announced his plans to modernize E-Rate, a national program created 18 years ago to support innovation in schools and libraries. It’s clear that he has turned a deaf ear to the voice of educators and is listening only to a group of CEOs. Where educators clamor for increased support for an underfunded E-Rate, business blithely cheer leads for addition (more WiFi) by subtraction (fewer other supported services). Time to tune out industry, Mr. Chairman, and tune in educators.

E-Rate is the single largest federal technology support to K-12 schools and districts. The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) and the education community have shared with the FCC firsthand accounts of the benefits of the program. We’ve offered suggestions on how to modernize it and recommendations for efficiencies.

But what is really disheartening is that it appears the chairman has dismissed the comments filed by more than 600 educators with suggestions on how to best modernize the program to meet their needs, as well as the 1,500 educators who signed a petition last week asking for an increase in E-Rate’s annual funding cap. The chairman’s order in no way reflects educators’ voices. The business of E-Rate is not business; it’s education.

Based on information shared to date, it appears that educators and, most importantly, students, are set to lose once again. Consider:

  • Modernization doesn’t equal a complete overhaul of the program. We support modernizing the program rules, but the chairman is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We all agree that there is a growing need to build out WiFi in our nation’s schools, but it should not be the sole focus of E-Rate, particularly at the expense of other much-needed connectivity. Furthermore, modernizing E-Rate doesn’t require a complete dismantling of a successful program that has served schools well over the past 18 years.

There are two pitfalls with the chairman’s plan in this regard. The first is that his proposal fails to keep the innovation door open to emerging technologies or different “must have” technologies that schools and libraries have identified today. The second is that his plan doesn’t address how internal connections such as Priority II or the new proposed Category II services will be supported beyond two years. Schools need reliable and stable funding to build out WiFi networks. Reassurances that another $3 billion will be found from new efficiencies and transparencies ring hollow. E-Rate needs a sound financial basis that looks beyond a two-year horizon, and the chairman’s plan simply doesn’t deliver.

  • Small and rural schools lose, again. Based on information available today, it appears that the chairman’s new proposed funding formula would severely disadvantage small schools. He’s proposed giving the poorest schools with enrollments of 40 or fewer students $4,800 – at most – for all of their internal connection needs over the course of the next five years. Rather than getting what they need, they get what they get. And what little they do get, they can only spend on the very narrow range of WiFi-type services that comprise the newly proposed eligible services list. What happened to the principle that local districts know their needs best?
  • The chairman’s proposal takes one step forward for connectivity but pushes many schools two steps back. Paying for WiFi by eliminating funding for voice services, web hosting and email means some districts stand to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars. Schools rely on telephone and the web to keep parents informed, especially during natural disasters and emergency situations. Without telephone service in the classroom, teachers cannot easily call out for help, and students may be unduly harmed. Without E-Rate support, schools could no longer afford to provide students with safe and secure email hosting services, a critical communication portal for building digital citizenship skills and for collaborating and communicating. These basic needs are not going away, and by pulling the plug or phasing out this support, the FCC will cause schools additional budgeting heartburn at a time when they can least afford it.

The commission takes up the E-Rate order at its July 11 meeting. Before the five commissioners decide how to vote, they should consider the stated needs of schools and the best interests of the students who rely on the connectivity that E-Rate has afforded them over the past 18 years. True modernization means creating rules that will allow and encourage innovation, protect local decision-making and ensure technology neutrality. Most importantly, it means putting the program on a continuing path to success beyond this chairman’s tenure.

Being good stewards of the program means more than re-purposing existing dollars; it means setting this program on a sensible policy and financial course for the long term. This is no time for Washington politics. A legacy and a future are at stake.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · July 8, 2014