ConnectED initiative aims high, but there’s more to consider.
GUEST COLUMN | by John Harrington
President Obama has called for high speed digital connections to our schools and libraries, “ensuring that 99 percent of American students can benefit” from advances in teaching and learning in the digital age. Referred to as ConnectED, the President’s initiative paints a bold picture of connected campuses — institutions teeming with teachers, students and other life-long learners, wirelessly connected and accessing the best educational resources the world has to offer. The President has asked the U.S. Department of Education, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and other agencies to help make this vision a reality within five years.
As new student-centered technologies and learning resources are developed and deployed, teachers will need additional professional development and support to weave those tools into the day-to-day practices of teaching and preparing our students. But beyond this challenge lies an even more practical nuts-and-bolts task: getting the necessary Internet connections to the school buildings and sharing those connections on-campus with teachers and students.
Fortunately, the existing E-rate program, regulated by the FCC, is designed specifically to support the types of Internet connections necessary to get and keep our students online in a 21st Century learning environment. In his ConnectEd proposal, President Obama specifically called on the FCC to release new regulations to improve the efficiency of the E-rate program and to increase the E-rate program’s financial support for schools and libraries.
In 1998, the E-rate program was launched with a $2.25 billion annual budget. Because of a few modest increases, the program now has a $2.38 billion annual budget – a meager 6 percent increase. By contrast, the demand for Internet access and telecommunications services in schools and libraries has increased by more than 250 percent during the same period. That growth in demand shows no sign of slowing down as schools embrace new online learning resources, e-textbooks, BYOD (bring your own device) initiatives and the Common Core online assessments, which begin in 2014.
The explosive growth in demand for Internet access, along with relatively flat E-rate funding support, not to mention regulations developed with a 1998-view of the Internet, are placing an undue strain on the E-rate program at a time when it is needed most. The good news is that the FCC already has the tools necessary to respond to President Obama’s call for E-rate regulatory reform. Within a year, the FCC could bring about change that would see faster connections being installed, and new wireless networks deployed, in every school in America thanks to President Obama.
This change will require additional funding and/or a reallocation of existing funds collected via the FCC’s Universal Service Program. But more money alone is not enough. Even if the E-rate program were to double in size, there would not be enough funding to do all the work that needs to be done, at least not all at once. Careful consideration needs to be made towards the allocation of E-rate funding and the prioritization with which funds are distributed. Current rules box applicants into specific technology choices, not all of which work for every school or library. To get 99 percent of students connected will require that schools have the freedom to think outside the box and pursue new technologies and new, creative approaches to “wiring” their campuses.
One proposed E-rate reform that is gaining traction is a budget system that would allow schools and libraries additional flexibility to choose the most cost-effective means of connecting their students to the Internet. The budget system would retain the E-rate program’s existing discount matrix and eligible services list but would eliminate the current “priority” system that favors some technologies over others. Instead, applicants would have local decision-making authority to choose from the entire list of eligible goods and services that qualify for E-rate discounts.
This updated E-rate discount system would encourage applicants to seek out the best solutions and get the best prices for their services. For each applicant, the annual discount budget amount would be calculated based on a generous per-student rate that is set by the FCC and tied to the applicant’s E-rate discount rate and the number of students or library patrons it serves. The total annual E-rate discounts for each applicant could not exceed their budget amount.
This proposed budget system is based on a recommendation of the 2003 Waste, Fraud and Abuse Task Force, a group created by the Universal Service Administration Company to examine ways to improve, streamline and protect the E-rate program. In its report, the Task Force noted that establishing a ceiling on the amount of funding that an applicant can request “would help ensure that applicants are submitting the most cost-effective funding requests. Further, a formula that produces a modest reduction in [disproportionately large] requests is likely to promote greater competition in the program.”
One unique aspect of the budget system is that it could be implemented almost immediately because it does not require changes to the E-rate application forms, discount matrix or eligible services list. The discount budget system would encourage applicants to make efficient use of limited E-rate funding and would further the President’s ConnectED initiative.
Education stakeholders are ready to meet President Obama’s challenge to get America’s schools and libraries connected to true 21st Century learning environments. The E-rate program is ideally suited to help make this dream a reality. Under President Obama’s leadership, this next chapter of the E-rate program is about to be written, and it will be even bigger and more exciting than the last.
John Harrington is the CEO of Funds For Learning.