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E-Rate Badly in Need of an Overhaul, School Officials Say

When the E-rate program was launched in the 1990s, just 14 percent of schools were connected to the Internet. Today, there's near-universal access, new technologies are constantly being introduced in classrooms, and demand for Web access for students and teachers is rising. And the E-rate is not keeping up, many school and tech advocates say.

In a story this week, my colleague Alyson Klein examines the current state of the E-rate—a pool of money drawn from telecommunications fees and directed toward schools—why so many people say it is not meeting demand, and what options are available for increasing schools' E-rate funding.

One of the reasons the issue is important is because state and district needs for reliable connectivity come into intense focus in 2014-2015, when states begin giving online assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards. But there's also the overall strain put on schools' tech systems by rising Web usage.

There are several potential fixes, though their political viability is unclear, as Alyson explains. The Federal Communications Commission, which oversees the program, can increase the flow of money to the E-rate, though that might mean taking that money from another program. The commission could limit the number of services currently targeted for discounts under the E-rate. It could redirect savings from another Universal Service Fund program, Lifeline, which supports telephone service for low-income individuals. (Recent audits have resulted in savings from that program.) Or federal officials could make a one-time invstment of federal dollars to help school districts improve their tech infrastructure—which could cost more than $7 billion, by one estimate.

Backers of overhauling or tinkering with the E-rate have one thing going for them: Many of the proposed fixes that interest them could be approved by the FCC, and not have to go through a hyperpartisan Congress.

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