Connecting Schools to the Future: Rethinking E-Rate

Connecting Schools to the Future: Rethinking E-Rate
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In order to take advantage of cutting-edge technology and instructional approaches like personalizing learning, teachers and students need greater access to high-speed internet connectivity. The current operational, funding and regulatory structures of E-rate, a federal tax created to bring telephone and internet services to school and libraries, are major obstacles to this powerful future.

Although the Federal Communications Commission has embarked on a commendable effort to reengineer E-rate, it remains a cumbersome exercise in paper shuffling, with goals that are largely mismatched with the needs of 21st-century education. With the transition to the Trump administration and the possible elevation of Commissioner Ajit Pai to be the next chairman of the FCC, the timing is right to make substantive changes that will better serve our schools and students.

Here are several ways to rethink and improve E-rate and give school districts the opportunity to utilize better methods of raising student achievement.

First, a revamped E-rate should be administered by the U.S. Department of Education instead of the FCC, an agency designed to regulate telecommunications services. The FCC should still have an advisory role, but giving the lead role to the agency directly tasked with supporting teaching and learning would provide a better chance for these funds to move the academic needle.

In addition, E-rate should not continue as a regressive tax on our telephone bills, with a taxation rate set by unaccountable federal bureaucrats and implementation far removed from practical realities in the field. Federal taxes and fees on wireless phone service are at an all-time high, with the total annual burden exceeding $17 billion, according to the Tax Foundation. Almost four billion of this total is surcharges used to fund E-rate, and the surcharges fall disproportionately on lower-income Americans. Instead, Congress should consider a reimbursement-based grant program funded from existing general revenues that would be reprioritized to serve a reinvigorated E-rate's purpose.

E-rate should be even more focused on supporting high-speed internet connections than it currently is, along with encouraging innovative and high-quality personalized learning models. Despite optimistic pronouncements by the Obama Administration, there is still an important need to support high-speed broadband connections that enable the use of sophisticated educational software, particularly for high-poverty school districts. The current tax and regulatory regime has struggled to implement widespread access to sufficient bandwidth opportunities, and as a result, many areas, especially rural, expensive-to-serve regions, have suffered inferior service.

As the capabilities of educational software increase, such as adaptive-learning platforms that leverage vast content libraries and provide real-time feedback and data, future demand for quality, speedy internet connections will become even more critical. A completely revised E-rate should fund this important connectivity, and it should also support deep integration of technology to individualize instruction for all students, which emerging evidence shows is better at engaging students and producing superior academic results.

In combination with the major new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a revised E-rate could inject billions of dollars into state and district efforts to integrate technology with teaching in academically meaningful ways. If E-rate funding were combined with a new block grant in ESSA, over $5 billion could be available to states and districts to increase their connectivity and implement state-of-the-art professional development and other means of supporting education technology to enable break-through learning approaches.

E-rate is also rife with significant design flaws that cry out for serious attention. There have been literally billions in awarded — but unused — E-rate funds over the years. In addition, as FCC Commissioner Pai has consistently noted, there is well-documented and ongoing waste and fraud in the current program. There are also the millions in costs incurred by school districts in simply complying with the rigid and overly-complicated program.

Notably, the current E-rate program is undersubscribed: current estimates show requests by districts for reimbursement that are $300 million below the E-rate funding cap of $3.9 billion. The program’s design flaws are partly to blame for this deficit, but so is the program’s lack of focus on high-speed connectivity and lack of support for powerful pedagogy like personalized learning.

New leadership, new goals and new processes would greatly improve the aging E-rate and better serve our nation’s pressing educational challenges. The total annual expenditure on U.S. public elementary and secondary education is more than $600 billion — 5.2 percent of the nation’s GDP. This staggering investment is producing flat or declining scores on national and international measures of student performance.

Totally overhauling E-rate provides an opportunity to accelerate next-generation models of learning that can boost student achievement and deliver the high-quality education all students deserve and our country needs to be globally competitive.

Doug Mesecar is an adjunct scholar at the Lexington Institute. He previously served as a senior official at the U.S. Department of Education, as well as with leading education companies and in Congress. 

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