On September 16, the Alliance for Excellent Education joined forty-five organizations in urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to expand funding for the E-rate program—the federal government’s program for connecting the nation’s schools and libraries to the internet.
“When E-rate was first created in 1996, the FCC adopted a $2.25 billion annual cap in an attempt to estimate the level of demand for the program,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “At the time, Google was a project called ‘BackRub’ being developed by two Stanford graduate students; Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg was twelve years old; and the purchase by the Los Angeles Unified School District of 30,000 iPads to enhance instruction would have been an impossible prediction.
“Technology, and the promise it holds to improve student learning, has evolved considerably since the E-rate cap was adopted, but the cap has not kept pace. The nation’s information-age economy demands high-speed internet access for its schools and students and this cannot happen without more funding for E-rate.”
In a letter responding to the FCC’s call for recommendations on how to modernize the E-rate program for schools and libraries, forty-six organizations, which represent school superintendents, teachers, principals, school boards, libraries, assessment consortia, rural schools, civil rights organizations, and education technology organizations, collectively note that demand for E-rate funds outpaces supply by more than two-to-one.
“For funding year 2013, $4.99 billion was requested in support; however, E-rate funding is capped at $2.38 billion,” the letter notes. “This funding gap does not represent the total costs associated with developing a fully functional technological infrastructure that can provide 99 percent of students with high-speed internet access in their schools and libraries. … We urge the FCC to increase funding for E-rate in order to achieve this critical goal without diverting funds from other universal service programs.”
In addition to the request for more funding, the organizations offer recommendations for how the FCC can build on E-rate’s record of success. Specifically, they urge the FCC to:
- Modernize the E-rate program. Since the program’s inception, the success of E-rate has been measured by the number of schools and libraries receiving support. It is time to change that goal from participation to capacity. Being connected to the internet is not enough for today’s digital learning; capacity is the key. New capacity goals should be established to meet the needs of schools, districts, libraries, and library systems that ensure all students have access to the high-speed broadband needed to support quality digital learning.
- Streamline and increase the efficiency of the E-rate process. The E-rate application process has improved, particularly in terms of its online filing system, but it remains a burdensome undertaking. As a result, many of the school districts and libraries that E-rate is intended to serve (i.e., those serving students and communities in low-income and rural areas) must hire consultants in order to apply, or they choose not to apply at all. The FCC should consider taking steps to lessen the burden of the application process on applicants, including allowing multi-year applications for non-reoccurring services; developing applicant online portals that will permit application tracking and make it easier for applicants to apply; and encouraging consortia applications.
The Alliance also offered its own recommendations for how the FCC can take advantage of several “high-leverage” opportunities to modernize E-rate, including
- prioritizing high-capacity broadband connectivity;
- facilitating the formation of consortia that extend beyond schools and libraries;
- incentivizing consortia and simplifying E-rate;
- measuring the success of E-rate based on capacity;
- providing special consideration for tribal communities; and
- ensuring that secondary schools primarily serving students from low-income families receive the appropriate discount.
Regarding subjects for future consideration, the Alliance suggests that the FCC explore the possibility of permitting eligible entities to utilize funds to purchase hardware.
The Alliance also joined a second coalition of education organizations in submitting group comments to the FCC. In addition to the Alliance, the coalition was comprised of Digital Learning Now!, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the International Association for K–12 Online Learning (iNACOL), Chiefs for Change, the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the Knowledge Alliance.