Sharp division among the top U.S. telecommunications regulators regarding the abrupt decision to suspend millions of dollars in eRate funding overshadowed an Oct. 6 event to showcase the many ways broadband internet access has transformed learning.

During the event, held by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), the two Democratic commissioners criticized the agency for the way it decided to freeze and liquidate eRate funds while it transitioned the program to government accounting procedures.

FCC Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein said he was concerned because he only learned of the decision when some school administrators asked him about it while he was on a trip to Alaska.

“Was this decision necessary? I don’t even know, because I wasn’t in on it. And I frankly should have been,” Adelstein said. “All of a sudden, I find there’s this sudden change in policy, and we’re going to suspend payments. Why? I still don’t understand why. I feel like I need more information.”

FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps also indicated he was out of the loop. “Some [people] parade themselves as friends of the eRate, but sometimes their actions belie their words,” he said, a not-so-veiled reference to the Bush administration and its allies. “But now, we learn there were decisions made behind closed doors that could undermine the gains we have made. Some untimely decisions were made to halt funding as the school year got under way.”

Copps added, “Of course we all want clarity about where the program’s funds should be located and how they should be carried on the books. It’s important, and we want these decisions to be made transparently and in a timely fashion. But transparency and timeliness are not words that come to mind here based on the facts as we know them. OMB has not put a thing on paper, but accounting changes have been ordered.”

Copps was referring to the White House Office of Management and Budget, which reportedly consulted with the FCC on its eRate accounting decisions. The extent to which OMB might ultimately be responsible for these decisions remained unclear at press time.

When questioned by reporters, FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell–a Republican who has publicly supported the eRate throughout his tenure as chairman–said the commission did not act inappropriately.

“Nobody suggested our interpretation was inaccurate,” Powell said. “It was suggested quite clearly that we would need to take action to bring USAC [the Universal Service Administrative Co., which administers the eRate] into compliance [with government accounting procedures]. There are various letters of exchange all through this process. But I can tell you we’ve been talking to both of those parties [OMB and the General Accounting Office] for months, and I don’t think any of them would tell you that the interpretation we’re operating on is the wrong one.”

The FCC issued a short statement late on Oct. 6 outlining several steps it would take to resolve the eRate funding delays. Among these provisions, the FCC directed USAC to liquidate $210 million in investments to expedite the approval of some delayed funding commitments.

Roughly 4,200 commitment letters, worth about $300 million, are currently ready to mail to schools and libraries as soon as USAC receives the go-ahead, George McDonald, vice president of USAC’s Schools and Libraries Division, testified at a Senate hearing Oct. 5.

eRate success stories

Amid the backdrop of controversy, FCC commissioners encouraged schools and libraries to tell their eRate success stories at the Oct. 6 symposium, entitled “Lifelong Learning: Unleashing the Power of Broadband.”

“This is about the worst time I can imagine for a snafu of this kind to come to light,” Copps said. “Don’t let those who would do this program harm or worse use these diversions to cast doubt on the fundamentals of this historic program.”

The symposium highlighted many extraordinary examples of how eRate dollars have directly changed learning in remote communities in Alaska, for deaf students, and more.

“The promotion of broadband as an educational tool is clearly in everyone’s best interest,” said FCC Commissioner Kathleen Q. Abernathy, a Republican.

The Lemon Grove School District in California wanted to create a collaborative learning environment to help address its challenges of lagging test scores and changing demographics.

“We tapped into eRate to help us accomplish those goals,” said Darryl LaGrace, information systems director for the district.

With eRate funds, the district provided every classroom with a telephone so teachers could call the office and communicate with parents. Internet access also connects hundreds of computers at each site and provides staff members with eMail access.

The K-8 district, which serves a diverse population of students, is also rolling out a one-to-one computing program in which each student will get a $500 web tablet for accessing software and content from the school’s servers.

The handheld devices look like rugged tablet PCs, but they are more like oversized personal digital assistants (PDAs) because they have no hard drives, LaGrace said. He said the district partnered with an unnamed technology company to custom-make the web tablets.

Through the district’s wireless network, students log onto the district’s web portal to access software such as Microsoft Word, Excel, Encarta encyclopedia, Inspiration, Kidspiration, MyPublisher, streaming videos, textbooks, and more. Students also can access daily lesson plans, hand in assignments, and view their grades and attendance using PowerSchool’s student information system.

“We want to improve student performance. We want to embed technology in daily learning,” LaGace said. The eRate really helped with that goal, he added.

Bruce Friend, chief administrative officer of the Florida Virtual School (FLVS), described how enrollment in the school’s online courses has jumped from 100 in its first year to 21,000 this past year.

The eRate, he said, provides opportunities to students that didn’t exist several years ago.

“The delivery system alone does not teach students,” Friend said. “It’s connecting teachers and students through broadband.” As bandwidth accessibility increases, FLVS has been able to enrich its content with whiteboard technology, flash, audio, video, and chat features.

Broadband access, largely enabled by the eRate, has transformed education for deaf students in the last few years, said Karen Warren, director of information technology at the American School for the Deaf in Connecticut.

“Broadband allows video at speeds that are critical for sign language,” Warren said.

Using video relay and video interpreting, a free service offered via the internet, deaf students can sit in front of a web camera, go to a web site on their computer, and make a phone call to anyone, anywhere and have it translated. The student signs to the interpreter, and the interpreter speaks aloud to the person receiving the call. Through the web site, the student can see what the caller is saying because the interpreter signs it back to the student.

“TTY [tele-typewriter technology] was groundbreaking when it came out. Now TTY collects dust in the closet,” Warren said. But video relay technology does not work well over a dial-up connection and therefore is dependent on broadband.

Louis Fox, executive director of the National Internet2 K20 Initiative and vice provost of the University of Washington, described how broadband internet access has allowed 23,388 K-12 schools to connect to the ultra-high-speed Internet2 so far.

Through Internet2, students can use the same tools for their experiments as advanced scientists, including electron microscopes, underwater rovers, and satellites that can be controlled remotely over a broadband connection.

“Students make the great leap from studying science to being scientists,” Fox said.

Links:

Federal Communications Commission
http://www.fcc.gov

“Unleashing the Educational Power of Broadband”
http://www.fcc.gov/educationbroadband