Schools are under increasing strain to provide fast, reliable Internet access for teachers and students, and federal officials insist that help is coming. But will it arrive quickly enough?
Those familiar with the E-rate program predict that proposed changes to its funding—expected to pump an extra $2 billion into high-speed broadband over the next two years—are likely to produce significant benefits for the nation’s schools over time, thanks in part to a new focus on supporting the use of new technologies.
Yet they also say it will take time for the bulk of the new money to reach districts—probably not until calendar year 2015—where it can help cover the costs of new Wi-Fi connections and other needs.
The pressure on school districts to upgrade their technology is growing, as the financial support to make those changes is limited. States are scheduled to begin giving online tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards in a year—exams that many district officials say will greatly tax their bandwidth and their ability to give tests with their current stock of laptops, desktops, and other devices.
Meanwhile, schools’ demand for bandwidth is also rising because of the growth of technology-enhanced lessons in classrooms, as well as students’ increasing reliance on mobile devices and other new technologies.
The Federal Communications Commission, the agency that oversees the E-rate, announced a series of steps last month that officials said would not only put more broadband funding into the program over the next two years, but also redirect the funding to pay for the most in-demand technologies, such as broadband.
Yet most of the tangible benefits of the new money for broadband will not be felt in districts for a while, a number of observers predict. They cite a variety of reasons, including the fact that the E-rate application process for 2014 is already far along, as well as the limits on how quickly districts can arrange to make technology upgrades.
In the long term, the picture “is very optimistic” for E-rate funding to help meet schools’ growing technology needs, said John Harrington, the CEO of Funds for Learning, a company in Edmond, Okla., that consults with school districts on how to apply for money through the program.
From the FCC and many policymakers, “there’s a good vision for the program,” he said. “There’s a real commitment, up and down the line.”
Prioritizing the Money
Yet the FCC’s blueprint is less likely to help schools with more-immediate needs, particularly in areas such as strengthening connections between buildings and classrooms, he said.
“For many schools, the bottleneck is inside the schools themselves,” Mr. Harrington said, adding that “for the internal connections, the short term is pretty bleak.”
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler recently announced plans to bring changes to the federal E-rate program, which supports K-12 schools and libraries and has an annual budget of $2.4 billion. Among the newly proposed policies:
• A $2 billion increase for broadband funding over the next two years;
• Applications in the current 2014 funding cycle that “get the most students the most broadband,” without favoring urban school systems, will be prioritized;
• Opportunities for greater productivity in use of funding in the program will be prioritized after an ongoing, internal review;
• The release of a public notice soon that emphasizes phasing out outdated “legacy services” and focuses on broadband; and
• Prioritizing rather than penalizing, applications from groups of schools.
SOURCE: Federal Communications Commission
E-rate applications to secure money to pay for improvements to internal connections are typically deemed “Priority 2" requests within the federal program. Historically, little money has been left for those E-rate projects after “Priority 1" requests, which usually bring basic Internet connectivity to a school campus, have been met.
“Only in Washington, D.C., do those priorities matter,” Mr. Harrington said. “If you’re a superintendent, your priority is connecting students.”
In a statement to Education Week, FCC officials confirmed that they expect that the bulk of the new $2 billion in broadband money will flow during 2015.
During 2014, the agency “will be taking a range of steps to free up the additional funds, as well as modernize the program,” the FCC said. Also in 2014, the agency will focus on Priority 1, and wait to see how much demand there is for Priority 2 services before acting on those requests, it said. Decisions about Priority 2 requests typically aren’t made until later in the calendar year, and FCC officials said they expect to stick to that schedule this year, too.
School and technology advocates have for years been calling for foundational changes to the E-rate program, which provides discounted telecommunications services to schools and libraries and has a $2.4 billion annual budget. President Barack Obama was one of those making that argument. Last year, the White House called for more money to go to the program and to refocus it on relevant technologies.
Earlier this month, the FCC announced plans to act. In a Feb. 5 speech, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, an Obama administration appointee, promised that the agency would spend $1 billion more a year over the next two years on broadband. Mr. Wheeler also said the agency would prioritize requests for broadband support in the current E-rate funding cycle, for which applications from schools are coming in now; and phase out support for outdated services, a change that would be spelled out in a public notice to be released by the agency.
Some backers of the E-rate program say the overall money devoted to the program needs to increase dramatically—perhaps doubling in size—to meet demand.
But Mr. Wheeler said in his speech that the FCC needs to scour the existing program for savings, and for money that can be redirected, before it considers taking that broader step.
"[T]he biggest immediate opportunities are unlocked by first looking carefully at how to do better with what you already have,” Mr. Wheeler said. He called for “an assessment of the use of current funds, along with a fact-based analysis of the needs of the program.”
Evan Marwell, the CEO of EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit group in San Francisco that seeks to improve school Internet access, said it made sense that the bulk of the new broadband money would not reach districts until 2015, partly because the 2014 funding cycle is too far along for the agency to make major shifts in the kinds of projects that receive money.
In some respects, that’s not a bad thing: The FCC will be able to ensure that new broadband funding is awarded as part of a restructured, improved E-rate program, rather than sending it to schools under the existing model, Mr. Marwell argued.
The process of using E-rate money for tech upgrades gets slowed down for other reasons, he noted. It takes time for districts to put out bids for technology to companies, including Internet service providers, and to select them, he said.
Other scheduling barriers persist. For instance, districts often try to limit ambitious tech upgrades so they occur during summer months, rather than during the school year, when they fear the work will derail instruction, Mr. Marwell added.
Crafting Future Plans
But even if the money doesn’t course through the pipeline as quickly as schools want, Mr. Marwell said the delay should give districts the opportunity to assess their needs for bandwidth and devices, so that when a substantial pool of money for broadband does become available, they’ll be ready.
“Start getting your ducks in a row,” Mr. Marwell said he would advise K-12 systems. “Take a hard look at what [you] have for wired and Wi-Fi. Every school in the country should have a plan.”
Schools wondering about their digital readiness will soon be asked to take their technology systems for an important, and potentially arduous, test lap around the track.Later this year, the two main state consortia designing online common-core exams, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, will begin administering field tests in districts across the country.
The field tests “will reveal a lot,” said Lillian Kellogg, the vice president for client services at Education Networks of America, a Nashville, Tenn.-based company that is a managed-network-service provider.
“What schools find out this year is that they’re going to need a lot more bandwidth,” she said. “I believe we will see a huge surge in demand in next year’s cycle because schools will better understand the limit of their existing infrastructure.”
Ms. Kellogg’s company, which serves 550 school districts, recently joined two other organizations—the nonprofit Consortium for School Networking, a Washington-based professional association, and the eLearn Institute, a Wyomissing, Pa.-based nonprofit—in releasing a series of resources to help schools prepare to administer online common-core exams.
In the meantime, it’s possible that the FCC could use its authority to redirect some funding for pressing school district needs in 2014, rather than waiting until next year, said her colleague Bob Collie, a senior vice president at the company. The agency could redirect money that was approved to go to various school systems but has not been spent, he said.
Regardless of when funding arrives, schools’ needs are broad, Ms. Kellogg said. And while it is an oversimplification to say that districts’ technology needs are being driven by online testing, the relationship between digital needs for testing and for classroom instruction is becoming clearer, she said.
“If you’re going to be testing digitally, you have to be instructing digitally,” she said. “And you have to have the infrastructure in place all year long.”
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A version of this article appeared in the February 26, 2014 edition of Education Week as New E-Rate Funding to Address K-12 Technology Needs