Obama Unveils Proposal to Overhaul Federal E-rate Program

By Sean Cavanagh — June 06, 2013 5 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step that many education and technology advocates have been urging for years to improve what they see as schools’ badly out-of-date technological capabilities.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.

[UPDATE: On Thursday, a pair of members of the FCC, chairwoman Mignon Clyburn and commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, both Democrats, praised Obama’s plans. The only Republican on the panel, Ajit Pai, declined a request for comment from Education Week.

“Over the last 15 years, the FCC’s E-Rate program has successfully helped bring Internet access to our nation’s schools and libraries,” Clyburn said in a statement.

“But basic Internet access is no longer sufficient, and the FCC has been taking a hard look at ways to further modernize the E-Rate program to bring robust broadband to schools and libraries, especially those in low income and rural communities.”

Earlier this year, Rosenworcel called for making major changes to the E-rate that she said could help schools, including shifting savings from another program where audits revealed potential savings into K-12 systems.]

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.

The FCC is a five-member panel, of which no more than three members can be Democrats or Republicans, with the president appointing the chair. Obama recently nominated Tom Wheeler, a venture capitalist and former wireless and cable industry official, to the chairman’s post.

The president’s proposal to change the E-rate would go through a federal rulemaking process, during which public comments would be accepted, a senior administration official said.

The E-rate program was created by Congress in 1996, aimed at providing all schools and libraries, particularly those in poor and rural communities, with communications services, including the Internet. The program, which receives funding through fees collected from telecommunications providers, is managed by the Universal Service Administrative Co., a nonprofit organization.

Schools and libraries do not obtain funding directly from the program, but instead apply to receive discounts on the costs of service. The amount of the discounts to schools varies, with greater amounts going to poorer applicants.

Many Demands

But demand for E-rate dollars now outstrips available funding. Districts requested almost $5 billion worth of funding for projects this year, but the program’s funding is capped at less than half that amount. While the cap is adjusted for inflation, many technology experts say it has not kept up with the strain placed on schools by the proliferation of mobile devices, wireless systems, and online exams.

White House officials put that demand in these terms: The average U.S. school today has roughly the same connectivity as the average American home, but schools serve 200 times as many users.

The goal of Obama’s plan would be to give 99 percent of the country’s students access to Internet broadband at speeds of at least 100 megabits per second, with a target of 1 gigabits per second, and to high-speed wireless connections within their schools and libraries. The 99 percent standard is meant to reflect that those upgrades would be voluntary, and so some districts could conceivably choose not to take part.

One of the technological hurdles facing many of the nation’s districts is the expectation that they will administer online tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards, beginning in the 2014-2015 academic year.

Many state and district officials are worried that districts’ technology sytems are not ready to handle the load of having so many students at once. A number of states have experienced major technology breakdowns while administering their own, online state assessments, only adding to the unease over the common-core deadline.

A senior administration official said the E-rate proposal is designed to improve schools’ overall tech capacity, and teachers’ and students’ access to and familiarity with it—and not to address state-testing concerns, specifically.

While the president’s proposal “probably has implications” for improved testing, a senior administration official said, “that’s not what’s driving this.”

Photo: President Barack Obama views a math project during a tour of Mooresville Middle School in Mooresville, N.C., on Thursday. (Evan Vucci/AP)

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.