How to improve the eRate

Rather than separate priorities for telecomm services and internal connections, the updated eRate program should have just one priority: connecting students.

The United States is credited with bringing forth some of the greatest technologies of our time—technologies that are being used today to raise the standard of education for people of all ages, in all circumstances, all around the globe. As a nation, we must take steps to ensure that students and teachers in the United States can benefit from these same resources.

Last month, President Obama announced the ConnectED initiative, a vision to bring high-speed internet access to 99 percent of our nation’s students within five years. This is a worthy and attainable goal.

A crucial component of the president’s vision is the need to update and reform the federal eRate funding program, which is overseen by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). eRate funding reform is desperately needed. The program was created to help our schools and libraries get online. And it has been a success: Today, 16 years after the inception of the eRate, most schools and libraries are online; but their computer networks—and their budgets—are straining to meet the demands placed on them.

Students are bringing electronic devices onto campuses like never before. Personalized learning systems that support and augment the work of classroom teachers are no longer ideas for the future. These tools, and others like them, are here now—and eRate funding is positioned to help provide the bandwidth and wireless LAN infrastructure necessary to leverage these tools to revolutionize the work taking place in every single classroom and library nationwide.

Yet, the eRate’s current framework bears the marks of the 1997 era in which it was launched. Back then, dial-up internet access was the norm, and the Wi-Fi Alliance was still two years from being born. (Yes, there was a day when we did not have Wi-Fi internet access.) In 1998, schools reported spending $15 per student in annual telecommunications and internet expenses. Today, that number is $50 per student and rising—an increase of 300 percent. Meanwhile, available eRate funding has increased a meager 6 percent.

Further compounding matters, a small percentage of “big spender” applicants want to consume the entire fund.

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