By guest blogger Kevin Connors
Supporters of revamping the federal E-rate program have a long list of education and policy organizations—in addition to President Obama and Arne Duncan—in their corner.
Last week, Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Mignon L. Clyburn proposed significant changes and upgrades to the federal E-rate program, an important piece of President Obama's ConnectED Initiative, which aims to provide high-speed Internet and broadband to 99 percent of the nation's schools within five years. Clyburn not only called for improvements to schools' technology infrastructure, but also for changes in the E-rate program's purchasing power and administrative oversight. Her proposal will have to undergo a review process by FCC Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Ajit Pai, followed by an extensive period of public comment, before any such changes could become final.
Yesterday, more than 50 national organizations signed a letter to Clyburn, Rosenworcel, and Pai, urging them to act quickly on the chair's proposal. The signatories include a long and diverse list of education and policy groups, including the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, the nation's two largest teachers' unions; the NAACP; advocacy groups like Democrats for Education Reform; and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, a pair of consortia of states designing tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards. Many tech advocates have said administering online exams linked to the common core will place a heavy strain on schools, and that increased E-rate funding could ease that burden.
The letter-signing effort was announced by the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based advocacy group that seeks to improve schools through technology and other means. Officials at the alliance say they drafted the letter and circulated it, and will be arranging opportunities for other organizations to voice support for changes to the E-rate in the future.
"The nation's education system is the nation's operating system and it is in need of an upgrade," the letter states. "We ask you to take swift action in implementing the president's call to modernize and leverage the existing E-rate program."
The various organizations cited several reasons to revamp the E-rate, including their belief that students' digital skills must significantly increase in order to keep up with workforce needs.
"The mismatch between student preparation and employer demands requires the technological transformation supported by ConnectED and E-rate," the letter states. "More than 20 percent of the nation's students do not graduate from high school on time, if at all, and by 2020, U.S. companies will have fewer than half the number of qualified applicants for the 123 million high skill jobs they will need to fill."
In addition to the job market, the organizations referenced a 2010 FCC survey which found that almost 80 percent of schools do not have broadband connections that meet their needs. This is not only an impediment to improving schools, they say, but with the implementation of common-core standards and tests over the next few years, students will face increased academic expectations.
As it stands now, the common core is "largely dependent upon technology that is not yet readily available in far too many school districts across the country," the signers of the letter wrote.
But while the letter's signatories clearly hope to lend momentum to the E-rate effort, some critics of ConnectED wonder how the program will be funded and who will manage the funds, according to representatives of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate.
"It's a great idea. But Obama's proposal leaves a lot of questions unanswered," they wrote in a recent article published on Slate. "The biggest unknown is perhaps the most important: funding. How the money is spent and where it comes from will determine not only whether the program meets its benchmarks but also whether it really helps ensure that technology improves in schools."