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Teachers Fear the Unknown in FCC's 'Net Neutrality' Vote

The FCC is on the verge of a closely watched decision on "net neutrality," and James Harris, an English teacher in Alaska, is feeling more than a little fear and uncertainty. 

Harris has heard many concerns about online consumers losing access to content if the Federal Communications Commission goes through with its proposed policy shift, and he shares those worries. 

He believes the risks are especially great in the sprawling, 9,000-student Kenai Peninsula Borough school district where he works. The district covers a land area roughly the size of West Virginia and digital resources are critical for delivering content to schools and students across its far-flung communities.

The FCC is scheduled to vote on the policy Dec. 14.

"We have issues with equity in Alaska, period. One of the solutions we've used is the internet," said Harris, the state's 2017 teacher of the year, in an interview. "It's really provided us with a means to reach those students and provide them with things they normally wouldn't have."

Harris was one of many educators who submitted public comments to the FCC on the net neutrality issue, a small subset of a massive wave of opinion turned in to the agency in the run-up to Thursday's vote.

Like many in the K-12 community and beyond, Harris' views of the impact of the proposed policy are largely speculative: He isn't sure how the flow of online information would change, but he is worried that the shift would affect his district and his students. 

Backers of the FCC proposal say fears about consumers and K-12 districts being harmed by the plan are off-base. They predict that web users will actually benefit from the policy change.

The proposal by Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai would reverse a two-year old order by the agency's then-Democratic majority that was designed to protect net neutrality. That order subjected internet service providers to regulation through Title II of the Communications Act and section 706 of the Telecommunications Act, forbidding them from blocking or throttling content, and from engaging in "paid prioritization," or assigning content to fast lanes based on monetary arrangements.

Pai says the 2015 order amounted to federal overreach that discourages internet service providers from making investments and bringing innovations that would benefit online consumers.

His proposal would require that internet service providers be transparent about their practices, and it charges the FCC and another agency, the Federal Trade Commission, to make sure companies are being forthright with customers. Fears that providers would mislead or take steps to antagonize online consumers are not realistic, the chairman says.

The internet "has thrived under a light-touch approach [to regulation] for two decades," FCC officials argued in a recent e-mail to Education Week.

"There is little or no evidence that providers do anything but provide their customers with access to all legal content: It's good business and what consumers, including schools, want."

'A Real Hardship'

Harris is not mollified by those assurances. He believes internet service providers will seek to find ways to assign content to fast-and-slow lanes in ways that could harm schools.

Big internet providers "are in the business of making money," Harris said. When companies that work in the education space are not held in check--he pointed to years of complaints about the student-loan industry—students lose out, the teacher argued.

Internet service providers may act responsibly in the short term after the proposed FCC policy takes hold, he said, "but in the long-term, they have an obligation to their investors to make as much money as they can."

If internet service providers are given more freedom to create fast lanes for certain content, the cost is likely to be too high for many schools, Harris predicted.

The worry is about "our libraries not being able to afford some of the higher-level services," he said.

Another teacher who submitted comments to the FCC, Debra Harreld, said she worries about the policy change interfering with her ability to pick and choose online resources for her students--and weakening her students' ability to access web materials from home. Harreld is an intermediate gifted resource teacher and head teacher for special education in the Albuquerque school district in New Mexico.

"I have to do a great deal of [online] research," Harreld said in an e-mail to Education Week, "just to maintain the differentiation, creativity, and engagement that my students need."

Many of the students at Harreld's school, the Zuni Elementary Magnet School for Technology and Communications, are from impoverished backgrounds, Harreld pointed out. She regularly asks them to complete videos and online lessons, and she questions whether the FCC order would stymie their access to those materials, in school or at home.

Having a free-flow of content is essential for students so that "their time working off campus is effectively used," she explained. "Increasingly, education is dependent on access to the Internet."

Dawn Rossbach, who also submitted comments to the FCC, said she's still trying to understand the implications of the proposal. But any significant shift in her ability to access online materials the work that goes on in her classroom, she said.

Rossbach teaches art and media arts in the Menahga school district, a small school system in Minnesota, about three hours from Minneapolis. She regularly helps students in her classes with films, documentaries, and other web-based presentations, which requires relatively unrestricted online access.

The beauty of online learning now is that "we're able to navigate the world, and bring in content from wherever," Rossbach said in an interview. "It would be a real hardship if rural districts don't have access to things that big districts do."


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