Policy error: Website not found

As students begin their summer break, parents have reason to be concerned that next school year the primary source of information about their children’s schools, teachers and classes may be at risk. Currently, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) is exploring a shortsighted and unnecessary change in the way that local school districts fund their websites. 

The FCC is currently working to update the E-Rate program, which was designed to help schools and libraries benefit from affordable 21st century technologies and Internet connectivity. The E-Rate program, which provides financial support for the majority of America’s public school websites, is funded through assessments from telecommunications companies, rather than tax dollars, and is operated under FCC-issued guidelines. The program has served as an asset to student success and also the foremost gateway for parents and community members to engage with their schools.  

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There is growing concern in the K-12 community that the FCC intends to eradicate funding for school websites. Likewise, we believe the program should not come at the expense of adequate funding for online educational and informational tools utilized by teachers, administrators, parents and students. If the FCC pulls the plug on school websites, parental engagement, online learning and even school safety would be put at risk, as emergency communications are primarily addressed through school websites.

According to a recent national survey, school leaders reported that websites are their #1 method for engaging parents, families and community members. Further, 90 percent of educators reported that their school and classroom websites perform essential educational functions. Parents strongly agree, with the majority, ranking school websites as their top choice for driving student achievement and providing direct access to curriculum, teachers and school information. While there is no single silver bullet to effective family engagement, web communications are a vital component that – when properly utilized – allow parents and families to engage in effective two-way communication and have access to information to support student achievement and advocate effectively for their child. 

As hundreds of educational leaders have already noted, accelerating digital learning, parental engagement and the adoption of high-speed broadband Internet connectivity must remain as national priorities. To those of us focused on student success, the policy disconnect is glaring, especially given that website funding accounts for less than 1 percent of the E-Rate program.

In response, the FCC has suggested that schools should simply switch to “free” website services. Unfortunately, so-called free services generate revenue through targeted advertisements and the data mining of private student information, which is sold to the highest bidder. That’s a false choice and one that places our kids and their private information at risk. As a result, more than 700 educational leaders, teachers and parents recently have sent comment letters to the FCC urging that E-Rate funding for webhosting continues to serve as a resource for students, parents and teachers. 

The FCC is still accepting comments on the E-Rate modernization and members of Congress continue to communicate their concerns over this drastic policy shift. Now is the time for all educators and parents to communicate their views to the FCC and to their Congressional representatives about their continued support for webhosting and adequate funding for the E-Rate program. Please visit http://www.fcc.gov/comments to make sure your voice is heard. Our children deserve as much.

Thompson has represented Pennsylvania's 5th Congressional District since 2009. He sits on the Agriculture; the Education and the Workforce; and the Natutral Resources committees. Thornton is president of the National PTA.

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