Time to ask for more eRate funding

If educators contact the FCC in large numbers, we might be able to more than double the annual funding available for the eRate.

“Why do we have faster internet access at the local coffee shop than in the average classroom? Let’s change that situation.”

This fall, the new school year arrives with exceptional promise, as it brings a rare opportunity to increase funding for the eRate—the only federal program focused on K-12 education technology.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has launched a rulemaking process to examine the eRate’s structure, the services it supports, and the adequacy of its funding. Educators need to speak up—and loudly—to make the case that our classrooms need greater eRate support to meet 21st-century needs.

If America’s educators contact the FCC in large numbers, we might be able to more than double annual eRate funding and greatly expand the number of classrooms with high-speed internet access.

17 years later

The last time such a pivotal moment in ed-tech policy occurred was 1996, when a bipartisan coalition of senators—led by Democrat Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine—created the eRate program. Back then, the goal—now largely achieved—was to ensure that every classroom had a basic connection to the internet. Now, 17 years and more than $30 billion in eRate commitments later, the stars seem to be aligning for big changes to the eRate.

In June, President Obama proposed ConnectED, an initiative to connect 99 percent of America’s students to the internet at high speeds within five years. This goal, which is focused on making sure that all classrooms can transition from basic to high-speed connectivity, can only be met by at least doubling the funding levels for the eRate.

The FCC, the agency that oversees the eRate, has invited initial comments on changes to the program by Sept. 16, with reply comments due Oct. 16. Now is the time to make your voice heard.

(Next page: How to speak up)

Here’s the rub

eRate funding has remained essentially flat since its inception. The program’s $2.25 billion annual cap was set back in 1998, well before broadband, tablets, and smart phones existed. Gosh, in 1997 we were thrilled with 56 baud modems and floppy disks! Quite simply, the eRate’s current funding level is insufficient to meet today’s need. For instance, this year’s $5 billion in funding requests is more than double available funds.

We are at a moment when the need for broadband connections in classrooms couldn’t be more pressing. As President Obama pointed out: “(T)he average American school has about the same bandwidth as the average American home, even though obviously there are 200 times as many people at school as there are at home. Only around 20 percent of our students have access to true high-speed internet in their classroom.”

Estimates say that doubling the eRate would cost about 40 cents more per month on the average consumer’s telephone bill—or about $5 per year. Can’t every American afford less than 2 cents a day to fund such a critical investment?

How can your voice be heard?

It is vital that the education community—including parents, students, and business leaders—speaks with a strong and united voice on the need for more eRate funding.

Fortunately, it’s easy to do. First, visit www.edtechactionnetwork.org for the latest information on the campaign to raise the eRate cap and how you can take action. Second, add your name to the “99 in 5” campaign, a call for policy makers to act swiftly to connect 99 percent of America’s students to high-speed wireless internet access within the next five years.

Mooresville Graded School District, the site of President Obama’s ConnectED speech, shows the dividends this can reap. Five years ago, after years of underperforming, Mooresville decided to reimagine its curriculum by fully transitioning to a digitally based learning environment. Today, Mooresville students have their own devices, are connected 24/7, and are learning in a personalized fashion. While technology alone is not the reason, it has been the catalyst for some astounding results. For instance, Mooresville’s academic composite on state high-stakes tests improved from 68 percent to 89 percent (second highest in the state)—and its four-year cohort graduation rate improved from 68 percent to 90 percent (third highest in the state).

Mooresville should not be the exception, but the rule. We want all our students to be college, career, and life ready, and ensure that our classrooms provide innovative and engaging learning environments.

Why do we have faster internet access at the local coffee shop than in the average classroom? Let’s change that situation. Tell the FCC that we need more eRate funding. If we don’t make noise now, we might never get another chance.

Keith Krueger is CEO of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), an education technology leadership association.

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