Proposed E-Rate Reforms Raise Concerns, Uncertainty

School Infrastructure

Proposed E-Rate Reforms Raise Concerns, Uncertainty

Education groups demand longer-term support

By Tony Wan     Jun 20, 2014

Proposed E-Rate Reforms Raise Concerns, Uncertainty

On June 20, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman, Tom Wheeler shared his long-awaited proposal to reform E-rate, the federal program launched in 1996 that subsidizes telecommunication services for schools and libraries. And the initial reactions from many education stakeholder groups have been less than enthusiastic.

In his letter, Wheeler proposed a commitment of "at least $1 billion in support to Wi-Fi next year to connect over 10 million students across the country in 2015, followed by another $1 billion in 2016 with predictable support continuing in future years."

The amount--at least for the years mentioned--appears consistent with the cost estimate from a recent report from EducationSuperHighway and the Consortium of School Networking (CoSN), which calculated that it will cost $3.2 billion (or $800,000 per year) in order to provided high-speed broadband to 99% U.S. schools and libraries by 2018. EducationSuperHighway tweeted its support of Wheeler's proposal:

In an email to EdSurge, EducationSuperHighway CEO Evan Marwell calls the proposal "a terrific next step in E-Rate modernization" and "a home run" for U.S. students. "If the Chairman's proposed order is adopted, 20 of the 30 million students without sufficient Wi-Fi will get it over the next two years," he writes.

The applause, however, is by no means unanimous. A number of influential education groups are unconvinced that the FCC can ensure "predictable support [for E-rate] continuing in future years" beyond 2016. The two largest teacher unions in the U.S., along with the National Parent Teacher Association, want the FCC to commit more funds to the E-rate program, and for a longer period of time. Dennis Van Roekel, President of the National Education Association, said he is "skeptical of the success of any major programmatic changes that do not provide sustainable additional funding."

Brian Lewis, CEO of ISTE (the International Society for Technology in Education), also criticized Wheeler's proposal for "only identif[ying] two years of the funding needed and no guarantee of more dollars after that." He adds, "Let's stop rearranging the deckchairs," and called on ISTE members to take to Twitter to partake in a #RaiseTheErateCap campaign.

Even CoSN, which co-wrote the aforementioned report with EducationSuperHighway, said: "We need predictable, ongoing support, not simply one-time investments."

Aside from the funding, Wheeler also proposed a number of policy changes to increase transparency in E-rate spending and, hopefully, make the application process more efficient. These include simplifying the application process, implementing oversight on spending, and "gradually phasing down support for non-broadband services."

If these suggestions are enacted, says Marwell, it will be "a major step forward for connectivity in America's classrooms and the next step in the FCCs continuing process to ensure that every student has equal access to educational opportunity through digital learning."

A five-member FCC committee will vote on Wheeler's proposal on July 11.

This article has been updated to include Evan Marwell's comments.

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