Special Report
Federal

Districts Want E-Rate Help Beyond School Walls

By Michelle R. Davis — March 11, 2013 5 min read

As schools incorporate more blended learning and take-home digital assignments, many students face a challenge: how to do their work, which requires Internet access, outside of school hours and school buildings.

The reality is that even in today’s technology-driven world, many students still don’t have computers or Internet connections at home, and those who do have access are often hampered by the poor quality of their online connections.

To complicate matters, the federal E-rate program, which helps districts pay for Internet connectivity, doesn’t apply outside of school hours, off school property.

The irony is that the Federal Communications Commission’s National Broadband Plan pushes for students to get connected, and the FCC has urged the adoption of digital textbooks. But the E-rate program still does not reimburse schools for out-of-school broadband access, even for low-income students.

Some educational technology leaders see that policy as a barrier to innovation and better use of digital tools for learning.

“We’re trying to extend the learning day beyond the duty day of 7:30 to 4:30,” says Steven D. Clagg, the chief information officer for the 39,000-student Aurora, Colo., public schools. “A lot of learning needs to happen outside those hours.”

The $2.3 billion E-rate program—established in1996 with the goal of ensuring that all schools and libraries, particularly those in low-income areas, have communications services—helps districts pay for many technology-related expenses, including telecommunications services, Internet access, and network maintenance. The more low-income students a district serves, the higher the level of the federal reimbursement.

Though the program recently began permitting districts to receive reimbursement for the use of technology outside of school hours, that use must take place on school property. For example, a school could keep a computer lab open for student and community use and receive E-rate funding for it. But a school could not receive federal support for students’ home Internet connections in a 1-to-1 computing program.

Still, federal officials are pilot-testing new ideas.

In 2011, the FCC launched a 20-site project called Learning on-the-Go, or LOGO, to study the issue. The project provided about $10 million for schools to experiment with the use of wireless Internet access off campus.

In Aurora, the money allowed the district to expand an online credit-recovery initiative for students at risk of not graduating. The money paid for netbooks for the students to take home, and the district worked with Internet-service provider Verizon to give the students a data plan.

The pilot funding allowed the program to expand from 148 to 212 students. During the 2011-12 school year, when the online credit-recovery pilot program took place, 25 students graduated, and 16 more graduated the following summer, Clagg says.

The pilot “allowed us to pay for devices that go off site,” he says. “We have an equity issue, and a lot of our kids don’t have Internet access at home, or computers.”

2,500 Netbooks

California’s 44,000-student Riverside Unified district, located about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, was also a pilot site for the FCC initiative. It used its federal money, along with matching funds from Internet provider Verizon, to give 2,500 netbooks to middle school students across five campuses, with unlimited data plans that allowed students to download digital content and access the Internet as needed, says Jay McPhail, the director of K-12 instructional technology.

The result was increased online visits to all of the district’s online learning management systems and electronic educational resources.

The pilot project also uncovered some unexpected issues. Many students in the district have relatives in Mexico and travel there on weekends or for vacations, and some students racked up large roaming charges when they made those trips. Verizon worked with the district to eliminate the roaming charges and put the devices on another plan that would cover such use.

The pilot was a success, McPhail says, but it ended during the 2011-12 school year. After that, the district had to drop support for the outside-of-school access.

“We had informed families it was only for one year, but most people were pretty upset,” McPhail says. “It drove a subset of parents to buy broadband, but others couldn’t afford it.”

The FCC has created a program, called Connect2Compete, that partners with private Internet companies to provide high-speed Internet access for $9.95 per month, along with a laptop or desktop computer for $150, to students who qualify for free lunch.

But Steve R. Clemons, the assistant superintendent and chief technology officer for the San Diego County Office of Education, which works with 42 California school districts and coordinated the LOGO pilot project nationwide for the FCC, says that while Connect2Compete can help many students, it can face problems in rural areas, which may not have a service provider willing to participate.

In addition, “it’s still incumbent on families to spend $10 a month, and for some families that is actually a lot of money,” Clemons says. “As more students use online and blended learning, this is becoming a big equity issue.”

‘Busting at the Seams’

But some districts worry that if the FCC opens the E-rate program to cover off-campus Internet access, the already limited pot of money for in-school technology will shrink, says John D. Harrington, the chief executive officer of Funds for Learning, an Edmond, Okla.-based consulting firm that helps schools apply for E-rate funding.

In the 2012 fiscal year, $2.3 billion in funding was available through the E-rate, but schools and libraries had asked for $5.2 billion, Harrington says. “The E-rate program is already busting at the seams to cover the access in schools,” he says.

Yet the issue of access outside of school is a personal one for students like Joe Gutierrez, a 7th grader at Clark-Pleasant Middle School in Greenwood, Ind.

When he moved to the area recently, he didn’t have Internet access at home and got behind in his homework because some of it required online computer use. “It was kind of hard for a while,” he says.

He ultimately figured out how to use the local library’s computers and got caught up. Though he has Internet access at home now, both he and his older sister sometimes opt for the library’s connection because it’s faster. But that can mean a lot of driving for his mother, he says.

Clagg, the Aurora district’s information chief, says the home-access issue is so important that the FCC should examine the overall program and what it’s funding in order to incorporate reimbursement for off-campus student access.

“Would I give up using federal dollars to pay for cellphones [for administrators] to get devices for students to take off site? You bet,” he says. “I’d be willing to prioritize.”

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