Obama to ask for increased eRate aid

School-based internet access can bring interactive, individualized, digital learning to millions of students.

President Barack Obama wants to see the nation’s classrooms transformed into digital learning centers and he is ready to ask federal regulators to use billions of dollars to pay for the broadband and high-speed internet connections that will be needed to make it happen.

During a stop June 6 in Mooresville, N.C., Obama was expected to call on the Federal Communications Commission to use a program that funds internet access in schools and libraries to bring these faster connections to 99 percent of students within five years.

Obama was visiting Mooresville Middle School, just north of Charlotte, to highlight the positive transformation and increased digital learning that has taken place there in the few years since the school district’s new superintendent began providing laptop computers to all students.

(Next page: How to fund a boost to the program)How to pay for the program would be up to the FCC. One option would be for the agency to use savings in its eRate program, which funds internet access in schools and libraries through a surcharge on telephone bills, said a senior administration official. Another option would be for the agency to impose a new, temporary surcharge of about $5 per year on phone bills, the official said.

The FCC has the authority to make changes to the program on its own and would not need Congress to approve.

The official estimated it would cost at least several billion dollars to bring faster internet connections to schools. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be quoted by name discussing the proposal before Obama announces it.

A fact sheet distributed by the White House said faster, school-based internet access can bring interactive, individualized, digital learning to millions of students who struggle to connect at slower speeds. Less than 20 percent of teachers say their school’s internet connection meets their needs.

Administration officials cited a need for the U.S. to catch up to other countries, such as its ally South Korea, where all schools have high-speed internet access, teachers are trained in digital learning, and plans call for eliminating printed textbooks by 2016.

Students in the Mooresville district, where 40 percent of the kids receive free or reduced-price lunch, use laptop computers. Those in kindergarten through third grade use them only at school; students in higher grades have them all day, seven days a week. The idea to distribute laptops came from Mark Edwards, who this year was named national superintendent of the year by the American Association of School Administrators.

Since Edwards came aboard in 2007, a district that ranks near the bottom in North Carolina in funding per pupil now has the second-best test scores and third-best graduation rates, according to the school administrators’ association.

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