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FCC Proposes $3.9 Billion for School Technology Program
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has proposed a massive increase to the total funds it makes available to schools and libraries for supporting technology.
In a proposal announced today, Wheeler called for a permanent $1.5 billion increase in the cap for E-rate, up from the current $2.4 billion, that would be used to pay for technology in schools.
E-rate is the FCC program administered by the Universal Service Administrative Co. that supports schools and libraries with subsidies for networking and telecommunications equipment and services — including broadband Internet access and internal WiFi connections — as well as maintenance. The funds can subsidize as much as 90 percent of the cost of equipment and services.
E-rate is funded through a fee users pay as part of their phone bill. The increase in the cap, to $3.9 billion, would be covered by an increase to that fee of about $0.16 to $0.19 per month per residential "rate payer," according to the FCC.)
The announcement was met with immediate support from education advocacy groups.
Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), said: "The proposal is a meaningful, critical commitment and long-term investment in America's students and educators. By promoting digital equity and strengthening the nation's education broadband infrastructure, the objectives identified expand the digital capacity in our schools and directly pay dividends for decades."
"An investment in education is an investment in our country's future," said Brian Lewis, CEO for the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). "This visionary E-rate proposal by Chairman Wheeler, the centerpiece of which is the first major funding increase for the program in 15 years, sets it on the path to sound financial footing for many years to come. We're grateful to the Chairman and his fellow commissioners for their leadership in seeking this critical funding increase, as well as the changes necessary to modernize the E-Rate program."
According to Partnership for 21st Century Skills Executive Director Dr. Helen Soulé: "The Chairman's plan represents a long overdue investment in our schools' broadband networks. Educators will not be able to equip students with the skills they need, unless we equip our schools with the technology and broadband access needed to transform teaching and learning."
"AASA applauds the Chairman's continued leadership on E-Rate. Today's proposal to raise the program's funding cap is a critical complement to the recently adopted program changes," said Daniel A. Domenech, executive director, AASA, The School Superintendents Association. "Together, the changes from July and the provision of sustained, adequate funding through the cap increase represent an unprecedented effort to ensure educational opportunities to our nation's schools and the students they serve. The FCC's proposal focuses on broadband connections for schools, especially those in rural communities, and ensures that our nation's schools remain able to keep pace with ever increasing connectivity needs."
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan also released a statement supporting the proposal: "Chairman Wheeler's proposal to boost E-rate funding will put the nation well on the path toward realizing President Obama's ConnectED Initiative and its vision of ensuring all students have the opportunities that accompany high-speed wireless in their classrooms, learning devices to access the internet and high-quality digital learning resources. We applaud the FCC's continued efforts to help level the playing field so that all students have access to fast broadband, giving them the best chance to succeed in the global economy."
Support for the increase, however, is not universal among members of the commission.
FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai released a statement condemning the proposal: "Last July, the Commission had the opportunity to enact bipartisan, student-centered E-Rate reforms. Instead, it adopted a plan with numbers that didn't come close to adding up and promised outside groups a massive post-election tax increase. Now, less than two weeks after the election, those chickens are coming home to roost. I strongly oppose this 17.2 percent tax increase. Instead of imposing a greater burden on families struggling to make ends meet in this lackluster economy, the Commission should pursue fiscally responsible reforms. These reforms would cut the bureaucratic red tape and focus resources on the children and library patrons of poor and rural America, where the need is greatest."
FCC Commissioner Mike O'Rielly issued a similar complaint: "I am disheartened to hear that the FCC intends to increase the E-rate program by 62 percent, bringing the total USF budget to approximately $10 billion. How will the FCC pay for this spending spree? Initially, the FCC will raise telecommunications bills by at least 16 percent. And, ultimately, I predict the FCC will disastrously impose new fees on broadband service – a move that even some consumer groups have opposed. Sadly, this action comes at a time when many families are still struggling and businesses are trying to regain their footing in the economy. Even worse, this new spending does not appear to be paired with any meaningful reforms to the E-rate program to target funding where it is truly needed. In fact, it could duplicate other universal service spending. This summer, I called upon the Commission to comprehensively modernize the program and to commit to find savings within the universal service fund so that reform would not come at a cost to consumers. There was so much room for common ground. Unfortunately, the FCC ignored my input and consumers will pay the price."
The proposal will be addressed in the FCC's December commission meeting. A 13-page document containing the proposal and related data can be downloaded from the FCC's site.