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E-Rate Plan for Wi-Fi Expansion Draws Praise, and Calls for Greater Action

UPDATED

Bringing high-speed Wi-Fi to every student and library is at the center of the long-awaited E-rate modernization plan circulated today by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler. The proposal drew praise from some observers, but concerns from education organizations about the sustainability of funding beyond the 2016-17 school year.

As outlined, the plan to modernize the 18-year-old E-rate program, which is designed to subsidize schools' and libraries' telecommunications costs, has three main components: 

First, it seeks to close the Wi-Fi gap in schools by committing at least $1 billion in guaranteed support for those technologies next year, followed by another $1 billion in 2016, with a multi-year transition to broadband-only services, eventually helping schools use the Internet for telephone services. Today, three out of five schools lack the Wi-Fi capability to use 21st-century education tools, according to a statement from the FCC announcing the order.

Second, the proposal would make E-rate dollars go farther by focusing on processes to drive down prices and increase transparency about how program dollars are spent.

Third, it would simplify applications, discount calculations, and other administrative aspects of the program to make it easier for districts and schools to use.

If the commission adopts his order, Wheeler estimates that 10 million students could be connected via Wi-Fi in their schools in 2015.  Wheeler's fellow commissioners received the full order today. That document will not be released publicly until the agency's July 11 open session, when a vote is expected on it.

The State Educational Technology Directors Association, a Glen Burnie, Md.-based organization, and Education SuperHighway, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that advocates for improved school connections, applauded the commissioner's proposal, and his speed in producing it.

"By acting this summer, the commission can begin supporting wireless upgrades in schools and libraries, ensuring that connectivity not only reaches the building but all the way to students' desks and devices," Education SuperHighway said in its statement.

The state tech directors' association noted that Wheeler's proposal reflected many of the organization's priorities for school technology.

But another organization focused on education technology, the Consortium for School Networking was less sanguine.

The consortium partnered with Education SuperHighway last month in releasing an analysis showing that the E-rate program is billions of dollars short in meeting schools' wireless network needs. Although finding some pieces of the new E-rate proposal laudable, CoSN's statement on the subject indicated that the proposal falls short of providing sufficient funding to meet President Obama's goal of connecting 99 percent of American students by 2018.

"We need predictable, ongoing support," the CoSN statement said, "not simply one-time investments." Providing an online educational experience that is transformative will require a greater investment in broadband connections, as well as Wi-Fi and local area networks, the organization said.

Others critical of the FCC plan were disappointed the commission did not commit to a more dramatic expansion of the overall size of the E-rate program, which is currently funded at about $2.4 billion a year.

"We believe the only way you can really move forward with programmatic changes to support the president's goals of 99 percent [connectivity] is if you increase funding," said Mary Kusler, the director of government relations for the National Education Association, a 3 million-member teachers' union, in an interview.

Sustainability of funding is an issue to the AASA, the School Superintendents Association, as well.

"They've articulated they could find $2 billion between the couch cushions over the next two years," said Noelle Ellerson, the associate executive director for policy and advocacy at AASA, told Education Week. She was referring to Wheeler's announcement earlier this year that the FCC could repurpose about $2 billion in funding for E-rate. "Once you've shaken out all the couch cushions, how do you find more?" she asked.

Brian Lewis, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, agreed. He called the lack of secure funding "a step backward" in a statement released by the organization, which organizes the nation's largest ed-tech conference.

"Instead of placing this invaluable but cash-strapped program on sound financial footing for the next decade, this draft order rests its laudable proposals ... on very shaky ground," he said in the statement.

After the announcement, the FCC released a number of letters from elected officials, business leaders, and organizations that urged fast action on E-rate modernization. Many of them were written before the details of this proposal came to light. For instance, five governors signed a letter on June 19 urging the commissioner to move quickly this summer to expand Wi-Fi.

"The consequences of inaction are enormous," the letter said.

Last month, a coalition of education, labor, and religious education organizations—including the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers, another teachers' union—urged the FCC to "avoid experimenting with unproven, arbitrary formulas" that would change E-rate funding and make it less beneficial to high-poverty and rural applicants. The groups warned against the FCC shifting to a formula adhering to "per student, per classroom, per building, or per district" allocations for paying for improved connectivity with schools and districts.

But in a call with reporters on Friday, a senior FCC official said the funding changes proposed by Wheeler would not alter the existing E-rate program's approach to prioritizing funding for the neediest districts.

UPDATE: This blog post was updated at 5:55 p.m. with a comment from Brian Lewis of the International Society for Technology in Education.


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