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Obama Calls for Revamping of Federal E-rate Program

By Sean Cavanagh — June 06, 2013 2 min read
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President Obama is expected on Thursday to call for an ambitious overhaul of the federal E-rate program, a step that many education and technology advocates have been urging for years to improve what they see as schools’ badly out-of-date technological capabilities.

The administration will ask the Federal Communications Commission to consider rechanneling and increasing funding through the program, which is derived from telecommunications fees, with the goal of giving 99 percent of the nation’s schools access to high-speed broadband and wireless Internet access within five years.

Obama’s plan, dubbed “ConnectED,” also calls for the U.S. Department of Education to use existing federal funding to boost teachers’ skills in using classroom technology, widely regarded as a shortcoming for many of today’s educators.

Senior administration officials, in a briefing with reporters, did not offer a firm estimate of the pricetag for the proposed E-rate changes, which would have to be approved by the FCC.

It would be left to the commission to determine the exact funding mechanism to raise the necessary funds, those officials said. But if charges need to be raised, it would result in a temporary charge of no more than $5 in additional, annual telecommunications fees, they said.

One senior administration official described the proposal as calling for a significant but “one-time capital” expense.

The White House argues that its plan will also produce innovation, and benefit schools in indirect ways. The federal investment in revamping schools’ technology will inspire ed-tech companies to develop products focused on improving K-12 learning, as opposed to focusing on other areas of technology, administration officials contend.

The president was scheduled to announce his plans during a trip to the Mooresville school district, in North Carolina, a system that has recast its academic approach to integrate technology throughout its curriculum and instruction.

Administration officials cast the North Carolina district’s experience as an example of the potential benefits generated by school districts’ investments in technology. The tech shift in Mooresville has given teachers faster, more useful, information about students’ performance, and allowed for more small-group instruction and less teaching through lectures.

Obama’s proposal emerged amid a rancorous political environment in Washington, yet it would appear his E-rate plan has the potential to receive a hearing insulated from at least some of the partisan clamor. Administration officials say the plan would not need the approval of a divided U.S. Congress, but would instead be considered by the FCC, which governs the E-rate program.

Read more details on the administration’s E-rate plan on the Digital Education blog.