E-rate reform: Is it what schools really need right now?
America's students are behind their peers worldwide, but their disadvantage isn't just a lack of knowledge in traditional subject areas like math, reading and science—it comes down to the very technology they need to succeed.
The Federal Communications Commission, spurred on by President Barack Obama's June announcement of the ConnectED initiative, has an opportunity to address this issue with its upcoming reforms to the federal E-rate program. As Obama posited in his speech, "In a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee, why shouldn't we have it in our schools?"
"We want our children to be 21st Century citizens," said Dr. Sheryl Abshire, chief technology officer of Calcasieu Parish Public Schools in Louisiana, during a Monday media briefing held by E-rate consultancy firm Funds For Learning. "We know that to do that, our children have to be connected."
During the conference call, Abshire and Funds For Learning CEO John Harrington discussed the pending reforms to the E-rate, which uses a fee charged to Americans on their phone bills to provide discounts on Internet services and digital devices to schools and libraries. To put things into perspective, those reforms will impact 52.2 million students in 113,047 school buildings dependent upon the program.
SCHOOLS AREN'T PREPARED
Reform can't come soon enough, either. A recent Funds for Learning survey revealed that a staggering 90% of American schools aren't "ready for tomorrow," with 47 million students in under-prepared school rooms. Internet and telecom fund requests have tripled from $15 per student in 1998 to $50 per student today, and the program—which has a $2.38 billion budget for the 2013-14 school year—received $4.9 billion in funding requests this past school year. In 2014, there will be no support for 47% of students. By 2015, that number expands to 71%.
"This is not something we can spend two years examining with a blue ribbon commission," said Harrington.
With the ConnectED initiative, President Obama is calling for 99% of the nation's students to be connected to high speed Internet (100 Mbps to 1 Gbps) within five years, and for schools to have high-speed wireless access—both of which are necessary for the device-amplified blended learning model of the future.. Cost estimates run around $10.8 billion for one-time upgrades, plus $2.2 billion for ongoing enhancements and maintenance. That's not even counting the $4.14 billion to $17.8 billion a year to pay for the access.
Still, the FCC has several options under consideration. It could possibly increase the monthly phone fee or reallocate funds. Harrington said it could also establish a unique approach to the Connect America Fund, which was established to expand broadband infrastructure to rural communities.
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has already proposed goals of 100 Mbps per student by 2015 and 1 Gbps per 1,000 students by the end of the decade. The commission has also proposed prioritizing broadband investment over older technologies and is moving the E-rate application online while streamlining the process. Harrington believes the FCC will amend outdated regulations to cover Wi-Fi access points, which can connect an entire school campus at a fraction of the cost and hassle of additional computer drops. The FCC's first rules are due to be submitted in September, with first replies following in October. It is currently unknown when the commission's final ruling will take place.
CURRICULUM ISN'T JUST IN TEXTBOOKS NOW
More cynical voices may wonder why students need all of this extra technology to succeed, but it's important to note that today's students are not the same students who were being taught in 1973. Modern technology is what they know and understand, making somewhat foolish to ask them to, as Abshire says, "power down" when they enter the classroom. Better connectivity means access to better, more up-to-date and compelling resources instead of the dated, static textbooks of old.
"Much of our content is digital—it's not in the textbook anymore," said Abshire, also noting that a lack of access "penalizes" students. Additionally, with most testing under new standards like the Common Core being done online, poor connectivity can impact the testing environment.
"Think of this in terms of electricity," said Harrington, comparing poor connections with too many students to the blown fuses caused in offices by space heaters. "Everything comes to a halt."
Would you like to see more education news like this in your inbox on a daily basis? Subscribe to our Education Dive email newsletter! You may also want to read Education Dive's look at 6 social networks that can make you better at your education job.
Follow Roger Riddell on Twitter