A change in leadership at the Federal Communications Commission has led to rising uncertainty about the future of efforts to boost broadband access, preserve an open internet, and protect online privacy—all issues affecting the K-12 sector.
Atop education leaders’ list of concerns is the E-rate, a $3.9 billion federal program that helps schools and libraries pay for telecommunications services. A wide cross-section of experts credits the FCC’s 2014 overhaul of the program for helping spur dramatic gains in the percentages of school districts with affordable high-speed internet connections and robust Wi-Fi networks.
“The E-rate is a model,” Evan Marwell, the CEO of broadband-advocacy group EducationSuperHighway, said in January. “Show me another government program where we’ve seen such spectacular results.”
But new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai doesn’t seem to share that enthusiasm.
As a commissioner, Pai voted against the 2014 E-rate modernization effort. One of his first acts after being appointed FCC chairman in January by President Donald Trump was to quash an internal report detailing the program’s success.
Although most observers say the E-rate does not face any existential threats, Pai’s past opinions and speeches, combined with a handful of early actions the commission has taken under his leadership, suggest that a number of its key elements could be up for reconsideration. Among them: the program’s annual spending cap, its formula for distributing funds, its rules meant to encourage the construction of new fiber networks, and its cumbersome application process.
The chairman declined multiple requests to clarify his position and plans.
One reason Pai was not available for an interview, according to an FCC spokesman, is the ongoing furor over his recent move to roll back so-called “net neutrality” rules. It’s among a handful of other issues at play before the commission that could also have a big downstream effect on the country’s public schools.
The resulting uncertainty is producing considerable anxiety in the K-12 sector, especially in states such as Nevada, where upgrading connections to rural and remote schools remains a challenge.
“There have been improvements, but we still have a long way to go,” said Brian Mitchell, the director of the governor’s office of science, innovation, and technology there. “I would hope that before any changes are made, let’s have a conversation and genuine consultation with states.”
One adjustment to the E-rate that would likely be roundly applauded: streamlining the program’s burdensome paperwork requirements.
It’s an issue that has been on Pai’s radar screen for years.
In April, he sent a scathing letter to Chris Henderson, the CEO of the Universal Service Administrative Company, describing “serious flaws” in the group’s management of the E-rate application-review process and demanding improvements. Henderson resigned two weeks later.
Other changes, though, could prove more controversial.
Marwell of EducationSuperHighway, for example, expressed concern at the possibility that Pai could seek to alter the E-rate’s rules on “special construction” projects.
As part of its 2014 E-rate modernization order, the commission moved to allow mostly rural schools and libraries to use E-rate funds to help pay for new fiber-optic networks to be built; to lease fiber networks themselves, rather than just paying for the information that flows across them; and to use federal funds to build their own fiber networks under certain conditions.
Opponents contend the special-construction rules would lead to duplicative fiber-optic networks and threaten some markets for private providers.
USAC seemed to give official voice to such concerns this spring, sending out lengthy inquiries to roughly 100 school districts pursuing special-construction projects. In some cases, USAC had already approved the districts’ plans, and the new delays threatened the viability of efforts to bring high-speed internet to some of the country’s hardest-to-reach students.
“It’s basically indicating that the FCC might be changing the rules in the middle of the game,” Marwell said last month. “This is the most immediate thing we are concerned about.”
Others, including Tom Wheeler, a Democrat who preceded Pai as FCC chairman, are worried about potential changes to the way E-rate money is distributed.
Currently, the FCC helps fund internet and telephone services according to E-rate applicants’ need, capping the overall amount of money it pays for these requests by prioritizing certain types of service and applicants with the highest poverty levels. The amount of E-rate funds allocated for internal Wi-Fi connections and hardware, meanwhile, is based on the number of students enrolled in each school.
In a 2013 speech at the American Enterprise Institute, then-Commissioner Pai laid out his vision for a “student-centered” E-rate program. Essentially, he suggested that all E-rate funds should be distributed based on the number of students enrolled and that districts should be granted more autonomy over how to spend their E-rate dollars.
Under Pai’s previous proposal, additional funds would have been allocated for rural and low-income schools, but critics say it wouldn’t have been enough.
“If it goes to a per-pupil [payment system], I think that’s a real problem,” Wheeler said in April. “That is particularly hard on rural schools, where the greatest challenges are.”
That’s the fear of Mitchell, the Nevada state official.
After a big leap in 2016, roughly three-fourths of the state’s school districts now meet minimum federal connectivity targets. The cost of bandwidth has also been falling.
But many of Nevada’s remotest schools are caught in a bind, Mitchell said: Their current internet connections come via microwave towers or old copper T-1 lines, but the schools are surrounded by miles of rough terrain, and they serve very few students, making any potential upgrades incredibly expensive.
“We’d have to look at what the [per-pupil] cap would be, but it could make connections even more difficult,” he said.
Other issues, such as net neutrality and online privacy, aren’t likely to have quite so direct or immediate an impact on schools.
Pai announced last month his intent to roll back key regulations enacted in 2015 with the goal of preventing internet-service providers from prioritizing favored online content while blocking or throttling other content.
Critics from the K-12 sector worry that providers of online educational content might be relegated to internet “slow lanes” and that schools’ ability to stream online content requiring lots of bandwidth, such as educational videos, could be hindered by the FCC’s proposed approach.
Critics also raised alarms in April, when Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress enacted legislation undoing rules approved by the Wheeler-led FCC that put restrictions on how telecommunications companies can use the data they collect on their customers. The concern is that companies could now be free to sell students’ internet-browsing histories and other sensitive information.
Eyeing the big picture, John Harrington, the CEO of Funds for Learning, an Edmond, Okla.-based E-rate-consulting company, said it is clear that change is in the works at the FCC, and there could be a real impact for schools. The reliance on a slowly dwindling population of telephone users to fund universal-service programs is a long-term structural issue that bears watching, he added.
But in the here and now, Harrington said, any debate over the future of the E-rate is almost certain to involve how the program is administered, not whether it should continue to exist.
There’s a basic reality that should give anxious K-12 leaders some measure of comfort, he said during a presentation in April at the annual conference of the Consortium for School Networking.
“This isn’t a red-state or blue-state issue,” Harrington said. “Every congressperson in the country has school districts that are counting on these funds.”
Coverage of learning through integrated designs for school innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York at www.carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.