The Federal Communications Commission’s recent makeover of the E-rate program is billed as a step toward transforming the fund from one focused on supporting 1990s-era telecommunication tools to one that accommodates 21st-century technologies. Now, school officials are trying to gauge what the new policies will mean for teachers, students, and their districts’ bottom lines.
The changes, approved in an FCC order on July 11, represent what some longtime observers of the E-rate describe as the most sweeping revisions in the program’s 18-year history.
At their core, the new policies will channel more E-rate funding, which is now capped at $2.4 billion a year, toward high-speed broadband and other technologies that can provide schools and libraries with fast and reliable Web connectivity, while phasing out support for various types of phone and “legacy” services that the FCC says are outmoded.
If the order works as planned, the application process for funding will become smoother, and the prices schools and libraries pay for services will become more transparent.
As ambitious as some of the changes are, FCC officials say they are only a first step—and that other revisions, possibly including boosting the program’s overall funding, could be coming.
The FCC says the new policies respond to a clear need. Over the past year, the commission has heard myriad accounts from school officials describing a K-12 system overtaxed by surging demands for Internet connectivity, results from the proliferation of mobile devices, the shift from print to digital materials, the growth of online testing, and rising demand for video streaming and other, heavy-bandwidth content.
Ninety-five percent of U.S. classrooms have some kind of access to the Internet today, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said at the panel’s public hearing last month. But basic access is no longer enough.
“The challenge is no longer connection—it’s capacity,” she said, adding, that “we have moved from a world where a connected computer lab down the hall is nice-to-have, to a world where high-speed broadband to the classroom is need-to-have.”
Wi-Fi in Focus
Established by Congress in 1996. the E-rate’s funding is derived from fees on telecommunications providers—charges that are typically passed on to consumers. The program provides discounts on telecommunications services in schools and libraries, giving preference to applicants with higher poverty levels.
The five members of the FCC, which oversees the program, are appointed by the president, though no more than three members can belong to one political party. The White House also selects the chairman, who is currently Tom Wheeler, an appointee of President Barack Obama.
While all five FCC commissioners voiced support for increasing students' access to technology, the 3-2 vote broke down on partisan lines.
All three Democrats on the commission—Mr. Wheeler, Ms. Rosenworcel, and Mignon Clyburn—supported the measure, with Republicans Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly opposed. Both GOP commissioners said they were blocked from making meaningful changes to the plan. But they also raised specific worries, arguing that the order would not reduce program bureaucracy, and that the promises of new Wi-Fi funding are not sustainable.
The school and library community was “promised E-rate modernization,” Mr. Pai said. “What did the FCC give them? The status quo.”
The FCC’s order devotes an additional $1 billion annually over the next two years to Wi-Fi technologies, and sets the same per-year funding target after that. The FCC says the immediate infusion of money for Wi-Fi will come from savings from other program areas—savings Mr. Pai says are overstated.
Benefits to Schools, Libraries
The support for Wi-Fi marks a major shift in how the E-rate supports schools and libraries. In recent years, demand for services providing external Internet connections to districts, labeled Priority 1 under the old program, sucked up nearly all funding, leaving little to nothing for internal connections, such as Wi-Fi.
As it pours more money into Wi-Fi, the FCC is phasing out support for phone services, and eliminating funding for others, such as paging, e-mail, and the hosting of websites.
Critics say those costs will be pushed back on schools. But agency officials, in their order, cited testimony from education groups that many K-12 purchases of those services are neither cost-effective nor necessary as districts shift to newer technologies, such as phone services delivered via broadband.
Districts like the 16,000-student Red Clay Consolidated School District, in Delaware, are sifting through the order and evaluating where their E-rate funding will rise and fall as a result of FCC’s change of policy.
Red Clay received about $170,000 last year for voice and other service that will be phased out, estimated Ted Ammann, the assistant superintendent for district operations. Those losses will sting, Mr. Ammann said. Another could, too: The new policy requires a districtwide calculation of eligibility for E-rate funds. That change could cost Red Clay money, because its poverty levels vary enormously from school to school, and the previous, school-based E-rate calculation recognized those needs, he said.
(FCC officials say the districtwide formula simplifies the application process for districts, provides more consistent funding across districts with different characteristics; and increases the accuracy of awards.)
Yet Mr. Ammann also praised the Wi-Fi expansion, which he said could bring more funding predictability—potentially important, as Red Clay pushes forward with a 1-to-1 computing plan.
Any district can have an impressive array of computing devices, he said, “but if you don’t have the wireless to connect them, you’re sunk.”
Overall, the potential infusion of Wi-Fi funding, balanced against the possible reduction of other E-rate funds, amounts to a “mixed blessing,” Mr. Ammann said.
Keith Bockwoldt, the director of technology services for Township High School District 214, in Arlington Heights, Ill., said he’s heard concerns from some school systems about the loss of voice and other services. It’s not a concern for his district, which he said moved to a Web-based phone service several years ago, saving money in the process.
He was enthusiastic, however, about a new policy that makes the prices that E-rate recipients pay for telecommunications more publicly available. Mr. Bockwoldt, who has researched Internet pricing across numerous districts in Illinois, said he knows of too many with similar broadband needs that pay vastly different costs. The new rules, he argues, should help hold providers to account.
“What we’re saying as school districts is that the pricing is not equitable,” Mr. Bockwoldt said.
The Next DebateIn the months ahead, FCC officials have their eye on other, potentially volatile issues affecting E-rate. Some education advocates are calling for the program’s overall budget to be increased to as much as $5 billion a year, to meet overflowing demand.
The FCC, as part of its order, issued a rulemaking notice asking for input on that question. The current funding cap was set in 1997 and only began receiving inflation adjustments in 2011.
Commissioner Pai, who has criticized what he sees as over-spending within the E-rate program, predicted at the July FCC hearing that Democrats on the commission will push for an increase in the program’s budget after the November mid-term elections, when doing so is more politically palatable.
E-rate funding is not something that schools can count on based upon the last few years of experience, and current times do not allow schools to move forward on unreliable ground. Help Feds! We are trying to help students learn with the best and this shaking ground does not help!
"New iOS users may not realize that both the iPad and iPhone feature "undo" and "redo" text options. The undo and redo buttons on the iPad are quite easy to access, while the process of undoing and redoing text on the iPhone is kind of silly."
For an entire school year Hillsborough, New Jersey, educators undertook an experiment, asking: Is the iPad really the best device for interactive learning?
It’s a question that has been on many minds since 2010, when Apple released the iPad and schools began experimenting with it. The devices came along at a time when many school reformers were advocating to replace textbooks with online curricula and add creative apps to lessons. Some teachers welcomed the shift, which allowed their students to replace old poster-board presentations with narrated screencasts and review teacher-produced video lessons at any time.
Four years later, however, it's still unclear whether the iPad is the device best suited to the classroom. The market for educational technology is huge and competitive: During 2014, American K-12 schools will spend an estimated $9.94 billion on educational technology, an increase of 2.5 percent over last year, according to Joseph Morris, director of market intelligence at the Center for Digital Education. On average, he said, schools spend about a third of their technology budgets on computer hardware.
Meanwhile, the cost of equipment is going down, software is improving, and state policies are driving expectations for technology access. “It’s really exciting,” said Douglas Levin, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, “but at the same time it’s really challenging for schools to have confidence when they make a decision.”
iPads have so far been a gadget of choice at both ends of the economic spectrum: in wealthier schools with ample resources and demand from parents, and in low-income schools that receive federal grants to improve student success rates. Last fall, enthusiasm for the Apple device peaked when Los Angeles Unified Schools, the second largest system in the nation, began a rollout out of iPads to every student.
However, the L.A. district quickly recalled about 2,100 iPads from students. At the end of the school year, leaders announced that schools would instead be allowed to choose from among six different devices, including Chromebooks and hybrid laptop-tablets. L.A. schools weren’t the first to falter: At the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year, Guilford County Schools in North Carolina halted an Amplify tablet program, and Fort Bend, Texas, cancelled its iPad initiative.
Hillsborough took a different approach. During the 2012–2013 school year, the district executed a comparative pilot, giving iPads to 200 kids and Chromebook laptops to an almost equal number. As other schools rushed into programs they would later scrap, Hillsborough took a more cautious approach, hedging its bets and asking educators: How can we get this right?
Organizations will not change until the people within them are ready to change, and those people have differing attitudes towards change. In a one-to-one program, often the resistance isn't towards using technology but instead it's resistance towards change itself.
Not all districts can go one-to-one. Isn't there something to be said with another impactful way to use technology with less than 10 devices in a room using small group differentiation? Would be easier to fund.
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