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Obama’s ConnectED Initiative Gets Major FCC, Corporate Financial Support

By Michele Molnar — February 14, 2014 4 min read
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It almost sounded like President Obama’s ConnectED initiative won a lottery earlier this month.

In the same speech, he announced $2 billion in repurposed funding from the Federal Communications Commission’s E-rate program to connect more than 15,000 schools and 20 million students to high-speed broadband, and a donation of $750 million in goods and services from seven companies for schools and students.

The president officially announced this K-12 boost as part of a speech before students, educators, and company executives at Buck Lodge Middle School in Adelphi, Md., on Feb. 4, shedding the spotlight on the ConnectED initiative to provide 99 percent of the nation’s schools with high-speed broadband technology within five years. The $2 billion, which is supposed to “flow to” schools sometime in 2014, was characterized as a “down payment” on reaching this goal.

Mr. Obama invited “every business leader across America to join us in this effort. Ask yourself what you can do to help us connect our students to the 21st century,” he said. “Ask yourselves what you can do to support our teachers and our parents, and give every young person a shot at success.”

After the camera crews left, the questions from schools began.

John Musso, the executive director of the Association of School Business Officials International, based in Reston, Va., supports the corporate infusion because schools are financially strapped. But members of his organization are already asking questions like, “What strings are attached?” and “What are the guidelines?”

He is also concerned about sustainability. Each of these initiatives has an end date. “Like the light bulbs in a new house, they all go out at the same time and you have to replace them,” he said. “What happens then?”

In response to a question about whether a clearinghouse would be established for releasing the goods and services, the U.S. Department of Education referred to the transcript of a media briefing with Gene Sperling, the director of the National Economic Council, the night before the announcement. Each company will create its own implementation and rollout plan, according to Mr. Sperling.

“We consulted with each of the companies about what they were doing to ensure that it was [a] private-sector commitment that reflected a new and substantial effort to move forward on the ConnectED vision,” he said. “And we feel confident that they each have a good game plan for doing so.”

Maximizing Digital Impact

CORPORATE ED-TECH DONATIONS

Seven companies pledged more than $750 million in goods and services in a joint effort on behalf of President Obama’s ConnectED initiative to bring high-speed Internet connectivity and educational technology into classrooms. The commitments announced earlier this month include:

APPLE: $100 million in iPads, MacBooks, and other products, as well as content and professional development tools to enrich learning in disadvantaged schools;

AT&T: More than $100 million to provide middle school students with free Internet connectivity for educational devices over their wireless network for three years;

AUTODESK: An expansion of its “Design the Future” program to every secondary school in the country, for a donation valued at more than $250 million

MICROSOFT: The launch of an “affordability” program to all U.S. public schools, by “deeply” discounting the price of its signature Windows operating system, which it said will “substantially” lower the cost of Windows-based devices, and provide more than 12 million copies of its Office application free to qualifying institutions, among other contributions;

O’REILLY MEDIA: Partnered with Safari Books Online to make more than $100 million in educational content and tools available for free to every school in America;

SPRINT: Offering free wireless service for up to 50,000 low-income high school students over the next four years, amounting to an estimated value of $100 million;

VERIZON: Providing a multi-year program to support the ConnectED vision through up to $100 million in cash an in-kind commitments to expand existing programs aimed at helping teachers use devices in STEM classes, and to start new programs.

SOURCES: The White House; Education Week

Evan Marwell, the CEO of EducationSuperHighway, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that advocates improving Internet access in schools, said it would be “optimal” for these companies to arrange distribution in a way that most directly maximizes the impact these donations can have. “It makes the most sense for the same recipient to get the device, access [in school], and home access, because there’s a lot of synergy among the gifts,” he added.

However, Mr. Marwell also expects a “throw it up in the air and see who grabs it” approach for distribution of the gifts, which he opposes.

For his part, Mr. Marwell is aggressively courting the corporate world to use its influence to improve the adoption of technology in schools.

For instance, EducationSuperHighway recently coordinated getting 51 CEOs to sign an open letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, asking the regulatory agency to “act boldly to modernize the E-rate program to provide the capital needed to upgrade our K-12 broadband connectivity and Wi-Fi infrastructure.”

Some high-profile CEOs who signed the letter include Ursula Burns of Xerox, Reed Hastings of Netflix, Marissa Mayer of Yahoo, Meg Whitman of Hewlett-Packard, and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook.

The CEOs support E-rate modernization, the letter said, because “America’s businesses need a workforce that is prepared for the knowledge economy. … [D]igital learning represents our country’s best hope to transform its K-12 education system to meet these goals.”

Beyond those reasons, the CEOs cited competition as a rallying cry: “America cannot afford to stand by while our competitors around the world invest in the future of education and a workforce that is superior to our own.”

Corporate Influence Questioned

But such admonitions about a sub-standard workforce and a dearth of qualified workers frustrate Alex Molnar, the director of the Commercialism in Education Research Unit at the University of Colorado Boulder. “Most of these claims simply don’t bear the weight of any kind of critical scrutiny,” he said.

Mr. Molnar, who has studied the intersection of business interests and public education for 30 years, pointed to the seven companies’ contribution of more than $750 million in goods and services as “just ‘venture philanthropy’—a self-interested effort to shape a marketplace in education, and to peddle their wares.

“This has nothing to do with whether this or that technology in this or that situation may be appropriate, useful, or educationally effective,” he said.

Others raised additional concerns. Rick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (and an Education Week blogger), questioned whether a quid pro quo is implied in corporate donations of this magnitude. “How much do you have to pledge in order to get a free shoutout?” he asked.

Donald Cohen, the executive director of In The Public Interest, a resource center on outsourcing, responsible contracting and best practices for good government, added that “schools need to be wired, and it’s great to see contributions that help kick-start that. But we have to make sure these contributors aren’t taking advantage of our children to lock in additional sales and market share going forward. Education policy needs to be driven by public interest, not profit margins.”

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Coverage of entrepreneurship and innovation in education and school design is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 19, 2014 edition of Education Week as President’s ConnectED Effort Garners Major Support From FCC, Companies

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