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ConnectED, Take 2: A Lesson in How Politics Works in Washington, DC

In our last blog posting1 we praised Obama for his vision and leadership in establishing the ConnectED program2 — and we excoriated him for not providing new funding to insure the enactment of the ConnectED program.

Well, did we ever get an earful from some of our more “politically savvy” friends!  Yes, in the announcement of the ConnectED program, the White House did call on education to use “existing” funds to carry out the ConnectED mission — connecting 99 percent of America’s schools in five years and providing professional development to teachers in the use of the Internet. But the President also included this line in his announcement:

 “The President is calling on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to modernize and leverage the existing E-Rate program, and leverage the expertise of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to deliver this connectivity to states, districts, and schools."3

That’s the key line! The President, in effect, told the FCC to use the “successful E-Rate program"4 to fund the ConnectED initiative!!!  Here is what that little sentence really means — at least according to our more politically savvy friends:

  1. “The Schools and Libraries Program of the Universal Service Fund, commonly known as "E-Rate," is5 administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) under the direction of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)”
  2. Districts apply to the USAC to cover various costs of connecting to the Internet. Currently, there is $2.25 billion available to pay for Internet connectivity costs.
  3. Money for the E-Rate program comes from each person who uses telecommunications’ services6. Thus, generally speaking, it is the telcos (e.g., Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, etc.) that are charged by the FCC to collect that small amount we pay each month. The telcos then give that money to the USAC.7
  4. The commissioners can vote to raise the amount of money the telcos collect from each phone user, thereby increasing the amount of money available to schools to cover Internet connectivity costs.  For example, raising the E-Rate monthly “tax” by even fifty cents per month per tax-paying customer would generate millions if not billions of new monies to fund the ConnectED program!
  5. It takes a majority (three of the five) of commissioners to raise the E-Rate monthly “tax.” Obama has appointed the majority of the commissioners8 including the new Chairman9.  Thus, it stands to reason that if Obama wants the FCC to raise the monthly tax to increase the monies available to “modernize and leverage the existing E-Rate program” then Obama’s appointees would be supportive of Obama’s desires.
  6. Given the current political climate, there is no way that Congress is going to vote an increase in taxes to pay for the ConnectED program. But, the FCC can, in effect, increase taxes, themselves with a simple majority vote of their board!

Sounds like a slam dunk? If only! See, a little birdie has told us10 that the telcos are not happy with a simple increase in the amount of E-Rate collected because, while they bear the burden of collecting the tax money — and field calls from irate customers about what the heck is this increase on my phone bill — the telcos may not necessarily get that extra E-Rate money back. The new money may well go to pay companies who provide networking services to the schools (e.g., ISPs), but who are not mandated to collect the E-Rate tax — and thus are not burdened with E-Rate tax collection like the telcos.

Now, if the telcos are not happy with the FCC’s plan,  we might, given our newly found political-savvyness, speculate as to what the telcos might do. Perhaps the telcos will use their considerable political leverage to suggest tweaks to the FCC proposal so that more of the new money goes back to them. Or, perhaps the telcos will go so far as to ask Congress to censure the FCC for overstepping their powers by, in effect, creating a tax. Government agencies, now and then, do overstep their powers. Only now and then, of course.

Time for hopping on the soap box: We all pay taxes for services that the government provides that may not benefit us directly. For example, we all pay for schools — even if we have no children who use the schools; we all pay for the food stamps program — even if we are not poor enough to warrant having food stamps. While we may grumble, we remember that we are in this together and we need to work for the common good.

ConnectED is needed by America and by all Americans; educating our children is the sure way to guarantee that America — and Americans — will continue to prosper — and keep the peace — in this highly competitive — and aggressive — world.

About the Authors

Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Visit her site at www.intergalacticmlc.org.

Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Visit his site at www.intergalacticmlc.org.

Find more from Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris at their Being Mobile blog at thejournal.com/beingmobile.

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