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Fixing E-Rate's Fine, But Then It's Time to Get Serious

On June 6, 2013, at a middle school in Mooresville, North Carolina, President Obama said, "We can't be stuck in the 19th century when we're living in a 21st century economy. And that's why, today, we're going to take a new step to make sure that virtually every child in America's classrooms has access to the fastest Internet and the most cutting-edge learning tools. And that step will better prepare our children for the jobs and challenges of the future." His proposal, dubbed "ConnectED," seeks to provide high-speed Internet to 99 percent of America's students by 2017.

Obama's talking points are familiar. The promise that technology will remake schools has been uttered plenty of times by governors, journalists, and CEOs. At the moment, federal policymakers' attention is focused on E-Rate. E-Rate (an informal name for the Universal Service Fund's Schools and Libraries Program) is a discount on telecommunications services for schools and libraries.

There is widespread agreement in Washington that the seventeen-year-old E-Rate program needs fixing. Its flaws include an arduous application process and distribution rules that result in abused and wasted funds, uncertainty, and difficulties obtaining certain services. One month after Obama's ConnectED address, the three sitting FCC commissioners, two Democrats and a Republican, voted unanimously to open a period of proposed rulemaking, calling for public comments on how to "modernize" E-Rate.

Enthusiasm for E-Rate reform is fine, so long as policymakers recognize that improving the program is only a modest step along the road to tapping the power of education technology. It would be only too easy for policymakers to focus on the the relatively uncontroversial task of reforming E-Rate, and fall into the facile trap of suggesting that better Internet access and technology will deliver better learning. What'll it take to do better?

As Bror Saxberg and I argue in our new book Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age (it'll be officially released by Corwin Press on Oct. 31), technology can't and won't drive meaningful change by itself. After all, while educational technology always seems to be ripe with promise, experiences using new technologies in classrooms over the course of the past century or so have left educators justifiably exasperated and wary.

However, if used as a tool for smart redesign, technology can have a profound impact on learning. Policymakers and reformers have a vital role to play in allowing that to happen. It is policymakers who will determine whether school and system leaders are free to use technology to rethink schooling in smarter, better ways, and whether those leaders are inclined to do so. For a discussion of what policymakers need to do, besides fixing E-Rate, check out the just-released AEI Outlook that I authored with Bror and AEI research associate Taryn Hochleitner, "E-Rate, Education technology, and School Reform."

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