New education models need a new E-Rate

The E-Rate was set up to provide discounts to assist public and private schools and libraries connect to the Internet. When it was enacted by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, only 14 percent of classrooms had Internet access; and, of those, 74 percent used dial-up. By 2005, the program had helped successfully connect 94 percent of U.S. classrooms to the Internet.

This first generation of connectivity provided a foundation for incremental improvement in schools. The pace of that innovation is accelerating due to the convergence of several trends. The Common Core State Standards are driving the adoption of new Internet-based resources, tools and services. New models of education are emerging, allowing learning to occur at any time and place. And, the Millennial generation expects teaching and learning to involve connected devices.

Today, every state allows some form of online education.  Just as iTunes unbundled music from albums, new laws are unbundling education by allowing students to take online courses from other schools, universities, or entities. Recently, Florida allowed students to use Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to earn high school credit.

The physical classroom model is also being reimagined through blended learning, which combines the best of face-to-face and online instruction. Sophisticated technology systems adapt lessons, videos of lectures, and resources to individual student needs, allowing teachers more one-on-one time with the students who need it most.

Next-generation models of learning need a next-generation E-Rate that can adequately support current and future education reforms. Take, for example, the new assessments in development for Common Core. State officials are rightly concerned that without a broadband upgrade some schools won’t be able to participate in these online assessments, which will offer students more interactive opportunities and teachers and parents faster test results. Moreover, nonparticipation could disrupt school accountability and teacher evaluation reforms.

In the National Broadband Plan, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) acknowledged that “education doesn’t stop at the schoolyard gate or library door,” but until now the E-Rate has been structured to support school and library buildings instead of learning, which can take place anywhere.

School models that don’t fit within traditional definitions are largely excluded from receiving E-Rate support. Florida Virtual School, the largest virtual school in the United States serving more than 148,000 students, uses a model built entirely around connected learning resulting in a broadband tab of $53 million, yet the E-Rate only reimburses $5,237. Schools using blended learning approaches that “flip the classroom,” where students watch lectures online at home and use class time for interactive discussion, also do not receive full E-Rate support.

For E-Rate reform to have a significant impact, it needs to better accommodate and accelerate these models, and do so using a more streamlined and less burdensome application process that provides more certainty to applicants in a timelier manner. The Government Accountability Office found that the complexity of the program contributed to nearly a quarter of $19.5 billion between 1998 and 2006 from being disbursed. This is what Commissioner Ajit Pai has rightly called the “red tape funding gap.”

Reform should also embrace stronger fiscal responsibility measures. It should include better incentives for applicants to spend limited dollars to achieve the highest impact, and reduce waste to free up needed funds for connecting kids. Broadband-intensive models of learning should be prioritized for funding over schools that prefer more traditional approaches.

Education is on the verge of a renaissance, as the digital revolution and technological advances offer the promise of providing each child with the high-quality, personalized education they deserve. While the transformation will continue, old policy models can slow down and hinder the progress being made across the country.

For a modernized E-Rate program to truly serve the classrooms of the 21st century, it must expand access for the growing number of blended, mobile and virtual learning opportunities serving students across America. This is a historic opportunity for the Commission to craft a modernized and strengthened E-Rate program so current and future generations can obtain the education and skills they need.

Bailey, executive director of Digital Learning Now!, is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush for domestic policy, former director of educational technology at the U.S. Department of Education, and co-founder of Whiteboard Advisors.

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