From the Editor

E-Rate Reform

This morning, July 19, the Federal Communications Commission is holding an Open Meeting. One of the items on the agenda is the consideration of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) “to modernize the Schools and Libraries Universal Service Support mechanism (the E-rate program) to support highspeed broadband for digital learning technologies and ensure all students, teachers, and library patrons have the tools they need to succeed in the 21st century.” The Commission will also hear from former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and , and Jim Steyer, Founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, who will present on the bipartisan Leading Education by Advancing Digital (LEAD) Commission's Five Point Blueprint recommending a national initiative to expand digital learning in K-12 education.  You will remember that in announcing the Connect ED initiative, President Obama called on the FCC to modernize and leverage existing programs (such as the E-Rate) to support his goal of connecting 99% of America’s students to the internet through high-speed broadband and high-speed wireless within 5 years.

There’s been a lot of speculation about the shape of the expected NPRM. It will be interesting to see just what proposals the FCC is submitting for public input. The FCC is an independent body and can move fairly quickly (especially in contrast to Congress), but this is not a done deal. One line of thought is that the FCC would opt for temporary increases in e-rate funding over the next several years, possibly as much as double existing funding levels to super charge schools’ ability to build out the necessary infrastructure. Other structural changes would also be needed if the end result is to increase the degree of connectivity at the classroom level. Already differences about how to approach this goal are surfacing.

Tuesday, FCC Commissioner Pai delivered a speech outlining his vision for a reformed E-Rate. Pai is the only Republican Commissioner at present. Pai outlined existing problems and called for program simplicity, transparency and accountability. (Simplifying forms and procedures would go a long way to making it easier for everyone to actually understand what it is that schools are asking for and how good a job they are doing of meeting their goals). Pai talked about placing more control at the local level, where schools know best what they need and when they need it. He proposes refocusing the program on connecting classrooms and providing broadband for student use, de-emphasizing Priority One services (telephone service and Internet access). He advocated for a fairer distribution of E-Rate funding, advancing the idea of dividing up the available funds on a per-student basis (while devoting additional funds for rural students and for poor students), so that every school would know up front how much E-Rate funding they will receive. And he proposed doing all this within existing E-Rate resources. There are some interesting ideas here, certainly one way to approach the problem.

Wednesday, the Senate Commerce Committee, chaired by long-time E-Rate supporter Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), held a hearing - “E-Rate 2.0: Connecting Every Child to the Transformative Power of Technology.” Ranking member John Thune (R-SD) made a statement in which he largely agreed with Pai’s approach. Thune is especially concerned (rightly so, in my opinion) about meeting the needs of rural schools. Too often students who most need the access to outside resoucres that broadband supports are forced to make do with low-speed access or no access at all.

The universal service contribution factor that funds the E-Rate has increased from 9.5% to 15.1% over the last four years. There will be many people who don’t want to see a further increase. And the technical language in which the E-Rate is often discussed can mask the fact that we’re talking about delivering services that most of us take for granted to real children in real schools. There’s also no denying the program has had its problems. Reform is never easy.

It’s time to begin paying attention to this. Be sure that you submit comments once the NPRM is released. Include examples of real schools who have benefited and schools who need better access. Be sure the schools and educators you work with are aware of the debate about E-Rate reform. Encourage them to submit comments and tell their own stories. Districts and schools also have to get their own acts together and be sure they know what they want and why they want it, taking responsibility for being sure their plans are well-crafted and their service providers well-vetted. Despite mind-numbing complexity the E-Rate has accomplished amazing things over the last 15 years. Within the first decade of its existence public-school classrooms with some form of Internet access jumped from 27% to 94%. In 1996, three-quarters of all public schools accessed the Internet over a dial-up modem; ten years later 97% of schools had broadband access. Rethinking priorities and procedures now could mean that similar progress can be made moving forward.