Changes in E-Rate Could Spur an Education Revolution

According to Ronald Brownstein of National Journal, the regulatory adjustment that could trigger an education revolution is being debated far outside the national spotlight. This week, the Federal Communication Commission begins debate on the rules that determine how federal government allocates funding for schools to connect to the internet. As James Shelton, the acting Education Department deputy secretary explains, this could present a once-in-a-decade opportunity for the federal government to boost the adoption of digital learning aids like tablets and laptops to schools serving more than 76 million students.

Introduction of portable digital equipment like smartphones and tablets is leading many to re-envision what a classroom of the future will be like. Bringing this technology into a school and making it work with an internet connection could create an individualized learning experience for every student – and at a very reasonable price. It is costing Los Angeles Unified School District a mere $30 million to equip each of its students with an Apple iPad, for example. A change in the FCC regulation could lower the price of making this into reality even further.

These changes won't be possible unless schools upgrade their connections. Almost all U.S. schools are now online in some fashion. That's largely because of federal assistance provided by the E-rate, which was established under the 1996 Telecommunications Act passed by a Republican Congress and signed by President Clinton. Under the E-rate, consumers pay a monthly fee of about 30 cents per phone line to subsidize Internet connections for primary and secondary schools, which must also contribute to the cost.

While that program has provided most schools with basic connectivity, only about 20 percent of American students have access to "true high-speed Internet in their classroom," as President Obama noted last month. Speaking at a North Carolina middle school that has upgraded, he urged the FCC to develop a plan to provide 99 percent of America's students with high-speed connectivity within five years. "We are talking about moving from a school where the connectivity is one computer in the library to one where every kid has a device in their hands that allows them to manipulate a 3-D science project," says Cecilia Munoz, the White House domestic policy adviser.

The report by the bipartisan Leading Education by Advancing Digital commission projects that wiring up all schools for broadband internet will cost between $6 and $9 billion. Assuming no savings can be squeezed out of the current program, this would translate to about 35 cents increase in the E-Rate fee payable by consumers.

Even with more money, this ambitious vision faces many hurdles. Administration officials acknowledge that the upgrade won't be affordable unless schools negotiate more effectively with telecommunications providers (some of which have faced persistent charges of failing to provide the E-rate's mandated discounts) and device manufacturers (which have not yet provided educators with mass low-cost options.) Software companies must develop more-sophisticated digital content, and teachers will need training to get the most from the new tools. Schools will need to teach "digital literacy and digital citizenship, and not just plunk a kid in front of a computer screen for seven hours a day," says James Steyer, a member of the LEAD Commission and founder of Common Sense Media, a group that monitors media's impact on children.

However, there are reasons why the technology industry should be backing the expansion of the program. The market for education technology is already enormous and connecting more schools to high speed internet will only grow it further – and faster.

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