Gates, Zuckerberg chip in to fund broadband in schools

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft founder Bill Gates are among several philanthropists who have pledged $9 million to a nonprofit organization that is trying to bring the Internet to public school classrooms around the country.

Over the next two years, Zuckerberg has pledged to give $3 million and Gates has promised to give $2 million to Education Superhighway, a San Francisco-based nonprofit. A smattering of other, smaller foundations have agreed to give $4 million to the organization, said its chief executive, Evan Marwell.

The gifts mark a significant boost for Education Superhighway, which had a 2013 budget of $1 million. “This provides us with the additional resources so we can accelerate our work,” Marwell said. “I think both Mark Zuckerberg and the Gates Foundation feel we’re at a real tipping point for integrating technology into our schools. We’ve got more grown-ups in schools now who grew up with the Internet, and we’ve got kids who are digital natives. If we don’t get this right, 40 million kids will be left behind.”

An estimated 72 percent of public schools — in the countryside, suburbs and cities — lack the broadband speeds necessary to fully access the Internet, according to Education Superhighway.

While 99 percent of public schools are connected to the Internet, they lack the high-speed connections necessary to support the explosion of devices — laptops, tablets, smartphones — and education applications to make full use of the Web in the classroom.

The federal government has connected public schools and libraries to the Internet through the E-rate, a surcharge added to telephone bills since 1997. E-rate funding provides schools and libraries with discounts of 20 percent to 90 percent on telecommunications costs. The allocation is based on need, with poor districts getting priority and a greater share of money. It is the federal government’s largest education technology program.

E-rate has not been able to keep pace with increasing technology demands from schools and libraries.

The amount disbursed by the federal government has remained constant at $2.25 billion annually, with no adjustments for inflation. This year, school districts sought funding for projects worth $5 billion, or more than double that amount. Experts say that is just a rough estimate of actual need because E-rate’s rules encourage schools to apply for technology that may not be cost-effective and discourage them from requesting money for some big-ticket items.

In June, President Obama proposed that all public schools receive high-speed broadband and wireless Internet service within five years. “In a country where we expect free WiFi with our coffee, why shouldn’t we have it in our schools?” Obama said when he announced the initiative at a school in North Carolina.

His plan, called ConnectED, calls for the Department of Education to train teachers in the best ways to use technology in classroom instruction, an area that many agree is weak.

To fund ConnectED, the Obama administration wants the Federal Communications Commission to modernize the E-rate and perhaps increase the surcharge. The FCC has been accepting input from the public about ways to update the E-rate program, and whether to increase the amount collected under the program. A decision probably will be made next year, observers say.

“When schools and teachers have access to reliable Internet connections, students can discover new skills and ideas beyond the classroom” Zuckerberg said in a statement. “The future of our economy and society depend largely on the next generation using and building new online tools and services, and I’m glad to support Education SuperHighway’s work.”

Education Superhighway has been providing the FCC with data, analysis and policy recommendations as it considers issues surrounding the E-rate, Marwell said. The $9 million in grants from Zuckerberg, Gates and other philanthropists will speed up that work and also enable the organization to help school districts make more cost-efficient purchasing decisions when it comes to technology, he said.

“This will help us provide technical and procurement expertise so schools can buy the right stuff and get it in the right places,” Marwell said.

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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