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Cries of 'Hunger Games' Follow Proposed Ed-Tech Funding Caps

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If you're a teacher or principal, you may not be familiar with all the details of the federal E-rate program. But over the past half dozen years, it's been a smashing federal success story, getting tens of millions of students the connectivity they need to take state assessments or dual enrollment courses online, stream video for class, integrate digital games into learning, and more.

Now, fans of the E-rate worry that the rapid progress of the past several years could be threatened by a Republican-backed effort to place new restrictions on the amount of money the E-rate program can dole out to help schools and libraries improve internet capability. Proponents of the idea, though, say it will help ensure that programs like the E-rate operate as efficiently as possible.

Some background: The E-rate program has been around since the mid-1990's. Back in 2014, the Federal Communications Commission, with encouragement from the Obama administration, gave it a much-needed facelift, in part by prioritizing support for broadband service and wireless networks. The FCC also raised its annual spending cap from $2.4 billion to $3.9 billion.

Since then, the number of students with strong broadband in their classrooms has catapulted from just 4 million to 45 million.That means: These students have a fiber optic connection to their school, Wi-Fi access in their classrooms, and meet a minimum standard of 100 kilobits per second. (That's the basic threshold that allows some classes in a school to use technology, like streaming a video or doing a personalized learning lesson, but not the whole school, all at once.)

Unlike other federal programs that benefit schools (think Title I for disadvantaged kids or grants for students in special education), the E-rate isn't paid for using the regular federal spending process. Instead, the cost of the program is covered out of the Universal Service Fund, essentially a fee added to long-distance and international telephone bills.

E-rate isn't the only program paid for using the Universal Service Fund. It also covers three other big initiatives, all aimed at improving communications and connectivity for underserved areas. They are: Rural Health Care, which helps improve connectivity for health clinics in remote areas; Connect America Fund, which benefits rural communities and farms; and Lifeline, which helps low-income people cover the cost of phone service and broadband.

Right now, each of those programs has a separate cap. The E-rate's cap is about $4.15 billion, but the program is actually spending a bit less right now, more like $2.75 billion. That's partly because the recent overhaul of the E-rate made changes to the program, for example, by removing phone service as an allowable expense, to focus just on internet connectivity.  

So what's the big proposed change? Three FCC commissioners, all Republicans, want to explore setting an overall cap for the programs financed out of the Universal Service Fund. They have proposed an $11.42 billon overall cap, which is nearly $2 billion more than the programs are spending now. The proposal was published in the Federal Register Thursday. It also asks whether the FCC should consider combining the E-rate and the Rural Health Care programs under a separate cap. The health care program has been growing by leaps and bounds.

The reasoning: The Universal Service Fund is not a blank check and placing a cap on the programs could make sure they run efficiently.

"Budgets also help drive out program waste, fraud, and abuse by encouraging those running up against a cap to eliminate inefficiencies that detract from achieving the program's mission and value," said Michael O'Reilly, the commissioner leading the charge, in a statement.

What's more, allowing the programs to grow unchecked could result in higher bills for everyone, he added. "It may not be listed in the Internal Revenue Code, but, make no mistake, this fee functions like a tax on consumer phone bills."  

But another commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, said the move has the potential to set off a universal service fund "hunger games" as all four programs struggle to compete for scarce dollars.  

"It is fundamentally inconsistent with this agency's high-minded rhetoric about closing the digital divide," she said in a statement. "I do not support an approach that fosters the universal service hunger games."

That's exactly how Melissa Tebbenkamp, the director of instructional technology for the Raytown Quality School District near Kansas City, Mo., sees it.

"What it feels like they're doing is trying to pit the four programs against each other in competition for funds," she said. "And that's never a good idea."

Tebbenkamp's district, which serves students from Kansas City's urban core, is worried that such a dramatic change to the E-rate will take districts back to the days before the 2014 overhaul, when many districts weren't able to get the funding they needed for things like building network infrastructure. 

And she argues that just because the E-rate is staying well under its cap, schools have plenty of unmet demands.

"We have so many needs," she said. "Schools are trying to focus on bridging the digital equity divide."

She'd love to see the range of services that can be covered under the E-rate expanded to include things like infrastructure for cyber security, or Wifi on school buses. That would enable students with long commutes to get some homework done on the bus, particularly if they don't have connectivity at home.

Plus, with technology evolving so quickly, there's really no way to know what the future holds.

"I've been watching this program for over 20 years," said Jon Bernstein, president of the Bernstein Strategy Group, which represents the International Society for Technology in Education. "The needs of schools differ and evolve over time. We can't even tell you what schools are going to need five years from now."

For now, school district officials, state leaders, and education technology companies have 60 days to comment on the FCC's proposal. ISTE and more than a dozen organizations representing educators are trying to get that timeline extended. They note that teachers, administrators, and school superintendents may not be able to respond to the proposed changes during the summer vacation months. Check out the letter here.

Image: Getty Images


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