Obama announces public and private investments for high-speed Internet in schools

Visiting an innovative Prince George’s County middle school where each child has a tablet computer, President Obama spoke Tuesday about his plan to give 20 million more students access to high-speed Internet connections at the nation’s schools and libraries.

Obama announced Tuesday that the Federal Communications Commission will dedicate $2 billion and that several private companies — including Apple, Verizon, Sprint and Microsoft — have committed $750 million to help bring some of the technological opportunities provided at Buck Lodge Middle School in Adelphi, Md., to schools across the country. He said he hopes that 99 percent of U.S. students will have high-speed access to the Internet within five years, something his administration has called a “foundation for a transformation in the classroom” that will give teachers the best technology and training along with rich, digital content.

“In a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee, we should demand it in our schools,” Obama told a cheering crowd after he toured a seventh-grade math class where students were using desktop computers and ­iPads to study the Mars rover.

The initiative, known as ConnectEd and originally announced last summer, could have a widespread impact at thousands of schools. White House officials said the Internet speed in 70 percent of the nation’s schools is too slow.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said improving access to technology could be a “game changer” toward providing a world-class education. “This is a highly important step in the right direction,” Duncan said.

Obama’s appearance at the Washington area school was part of a post-State of the Union tour that included stops in four states last week, with the president seeking to build public support for his agenda and his pledge to use executive authority to move forward in areas where Republicans have not supported him. Aides said the president will continue to announce executive actions throughout the year, even as he tries to work with Congress on bigger bills, including a farm bill approved Tuesday with bipartisan support.

But Republicans have accused Obama of hurting his cause by stumping for an agenda that bypasses Congress, and they have called his executive actions a mix of small-bore initiatives and, in some cases, an abuse of his powers.

White House officials described ConnectEd as a “breakthrough investment in schools” that will assist teachers in using technology to help students learn, keep them engaged and prepare them for the future.

“We believe this is a transformative moment for teaching and learning in this country,” said Cecilia Muñoz, director of the Domestic Policy Council, adding that the new technology will help the United States — where classrooms are falling behind those in other countries such as South Korea — remain competitive.

Muñoz said the initiative will let teachers and parents monitor students’ progress and permit students to connect with others around the world.

At Buck Lodge, one of four schools in Prince George’s County that integrates iPads into classrooms, students can take the tablets home to enhance their studies. Obama admired the classroom technology and the options it gives educators.

“It makes a difference for teaching and learning,” said James Richardson, Buck Lodge’s principal. “Students are more engaged. They are creators of knowledge instead of just users.”

Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, said the $2 billion, two-year commitment from the FCC is a “down payment” on Obama’s plan to provide wireless technology to 15,000 schools and 20 million students.

When the initiative was announced last year, Obama said he wanted to raise fees on mobile-phone users to pay for the program. But Sperling said that instead of increasing consumer rates, the FCC will redirect existing money to pay for the broadband grants.

Sperling said Apple has pledged $100 million in iPads and other equipment and training to disadvantaged schools; AT&T and Sprint will provide $100 million each to connect schools; Autodesk will offer $250 million in software; Verizon will invest as much as $100 million in cash and in-kind contributions for professional development; O’Reilly Media will give $100 million; and Microsoft will provide a discount to offer Windows in all schools nationwide.

“The private sector has answered the president’s call,” Sperling said. “The vision was always that the private sector would see the public value” of ConnectEd.

Some industry officials who have made financial commitments to change the way teachers teach and students learn said they have seen how effective their previous investments have been in classrooms.

“The most important investment we can make to drive long-term prosperity for our country is finding smart new ways to make technology work for schools, teachers and students,” Jim Cicconi, AT&T’s senior executive vice president for external and legislative affairs, said in a statement.

Ovetta Wiggins writes about K-12 education.
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