The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-0 today to release a plan for overhauling the E-rate program for public review, an initial step in what many education advocates hope will produce sweeping upgrades to the technological speed and capabilities of the nation's schools.
The exact details of the plan were not immediately made available. But an outline released by the FCC after Friday's vote said the changes would address three overriding goals: improving schools' broadband capabilities, promoting cost-effective purchasing, and streamlining the process through which applications are reviewed.
The vote by the three commissioners currently serving on the FCC—two positions are vacant—allows the agency to release a detailed plan, called a notice of proposed rulemaking, spelling out options for changing E-rate policy. [UPDATE: The full text of the FCC's Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is now online.]
After the public-comment period ends on those rules—it could last several months—the FCC can then vote on a final rule.
The initial outline of potential changes released by the FCC after Friday's vote laid out several proposals meant to boost schools' connectivity, control E-rate program costs, and cut through bureaucracy in getting money to schools quickly.
The proposals up for consideration include:
• Making establishing fiberoptic cable a priority, and phasing out the E-rate's support for outdated products and services, like pagers;
• Simplifying rules on deployment of fiberoptic cable, with the goal of lowering barriers to construction;
• Increasing support to schools to use E-rate money to establish wireless connections within classrooms and libraries;
• Awarding funding on a simplified, per-student basis;
• Increasing the ability of consortia, rather than individual schools and districts, to make E-rate purchases, with the goal of driving down prices;
• Speeding up the review of E-rate applications, and creating new ways to allow electronic filing of documents through the program; and
• Reducing the amount of unused funds through the program.
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who has publicly backed a number of those changes, told attendees at Friday's meeting that many American school districts' tech systems don't stack up to those found in top-performing countries like South Korea, where high-speed technology has become the standard.
"Without adequate capacity, our students are going to fall short," Rosenworcel said, adding: "We fail our children if we expect digital-age learning to take place at dial-up speeds."
The federal E-rate program was established by Congress in 1996 with the intention of providing schools and libraries, particularly in rural and impoverished communities, with improved access to telecommunications services. The program is funded through fees on telecommunications providers, costs that are ultimately passed on to consumers.
Many school officials and technology advocates say the E-rate is badly outdated and has not kept up with rising demands put on schools by myriad devices available to teachers and students. Critics say the program requires districts and schools to endure a lengthy and complicated application process and focuses too heavily on noninstructional needs and yesterday's technologies.
Last month, President Obama publicly called for major changes to the program, including giving 99 percent of the nation's schools access to high-speed broadband and wireless Internet access within five years. Administration officials have said those changes would be supported through a temporary, "one-time capital" expense that would cost phone users no more than $5 per year.
Both President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan released statements praising the FCC's action.
"Their vote today marks a first step in a five-year effort that will have enormous benefits for students, teachers, and families, and for our national competitiveness," Duncan said. "Today, the bandwidth of the typical American school is far too low to support today's learning technologies and demands."
The two Democrats serving on the panel, acting chairwoman Mignon Clyburn and Rosenworcel, have both publicly called for changes that mirror Obama's plan.
Money and Transparency
The panel's Republican member, Ajit Pai, has said he backs increasing schools' tech capacity but also says federal officials need to focus on reducing waste within the E-rate program and channeling more funding to school plans that direct resources to classrooms, not noninstructional needs.
He raised concerns on Friday that an ambitious expansion of the program would bring new costs for the public, through charges on telecommunications users.
"Expanding the program is not the same as reform," Pai said during the meeting. "We can do a lot more with the money we're already collecting."
Pai has called for schools to chip in $1 for every $3 in federal E-rate money they receive, a step that he says would give them "skin in the game," in making sure funding is spent wisely on technology.
After Friday's meeting, he told Education Week that he hoped that "wider constituencies," including parents and teachers, would support his call for a more transparent and accountable program.
"If we increase the program dramatically, and then fund that expansion through an increase in contributions, that necessarily hits every consumer in the pocketbook," Pai said.
The Republican commissioner, in a speech earlier this week, said the FCC ends up not sending a significant amount of E-rate funding to schools because of its cumbersome process of reviewing and approving applications and distributing funds.
The public would support "structural reforms that would allow that money to get out the door more efficiently," Pai said, adding, "We can do more with what we have, without imposing higher fees on consumers."
It remains unclear whether changes to the E-rate will draw resistance from telecommunications providers or other interests inside the Beltway, or beyond.
But former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who spoke to the commission on Friday in favor of it taking steps to improve schools' tech capacities, predicted that telecommunications providers ultimately would welcome changes to the E-rate.
"The way we're doing it now, with these little cul-de-sacs of investments, really have not harnessed the power of the market," Spellings said after the FCC's vote.
"The distribution channels are so prohibitively expensive," she added. For telecommunications providers today, "when you've got to sell [services] to thousands of school districts and tens of thousands of individual campuses, it's just not doable. This is a huge game-changer, not just for educators, but for the marketplace as well."