President Barack Obama has ambitious plans to improve internet access in schools — but he has help. He announced at a Maryland middle school that private companies will give donations totaling $750 million to improve technology in schools, stating, "In a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee, we should definitely demand it in our schools." He reiterated the fact that technology in the classroom increases critical thinking and creativity.
Congress will need to agree, but Obama says he is prepared to act on his own if need be. Major companies like AT&T, Apple, Microsoft, Sprint and The Verizon Foundation have signed on to help, donating $750 million worth of products and free high speed internet services to low income schools.
The announcement was one of two that Obama delivered on school internet initiatives. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler plans another announcement on changes to the federal program for technology subsidies E-Rate.
The President teased the announcements in last week's State of the Union, saying that he had a "down payment" on a new high-speed Internet investment. Overall, 15,000 more schools and 20 million additional students will be connected to broadband Internet because of the new initiatives, the president said.
Phillip Lovell, Vice President of federal advocacy for the Alliance for Excellent Education, said the there are more plans for modernization and the push will continue for months and years until Obama's goal of connecting 99% of students to high speed internet is met. Maggie Severns of Politico writes that more than 70% of schools are not hitting the minimum goal for internet connectivity.
Those contributing to the program with connectivity include AT&T, who is offering $100 million in mobile broadband services over three years, and Sprint, who will offer free wireless to low income high school students over the next four years. Products and Content contributions are coming in from Apple, who promised $100 million in iPads, Macbooks, and other products for teachers and school employees.
Microsoft is discounting the price of Windows operating system for schools, and O'Reilly Media is collaborating with Safari Books Online to give $100 million in online books and tools to every school in the country free.
The Verizon Foundation pledged $100 million to expand its Innovative Learning Schools Program and its Verizon Innovative App Challenge. Autodesk is providing its science and art support software Design the Future to every secondary school in the country free.
In addition to the private funds, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will provide $10 million in distance learning grants to rural schools. The grants can be used for equipment and services such as videoconferencing. And the FCC plans to invest an additional $2 billion over the next two years to support broadband networks in the schools and libraries.
Mary Kusler, government relations director at the National Education Association, says the list of participants is remarkable because of the number of big name companies listed, as well as those who are not. "You can see company by company whose playing and who's not," Kusler said, adding, "it's a great thing to see these companies stepping up to the plate."
Obama emphasized that companies want educated customers and have a stake in the student's ability to be digitally literate, saying that, "They want customers who are able to get good jobs, who are able to use these tools in the future."
One unexpected driver of the push to modernize school Internet access came when districts started preparing to test students for the Common Core State Standards. The tests were intended to be given exclusively online, but so many schools don't have the infrastructure and equipment to give tests that way, paper-and-pencil tests will be offered at first.