Teachers threaten to derail Wi-Fi push

Educators are threatening to derail the Obama administration’s proposals to boost wireless Internet in schools over fears districts could be left with inadequate funds or cuts to other services.

A new plan from Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler would funnel $5 billion for Wi-Fi over the next five years through the agency’s E-Rate program.

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The FCC is set to vote on the plan at its monthly meeting on July 11, but sources now say it’s unclear if it has the votes to pass.

Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai have advocated for reforms to the E-Rate program, but it's unclear if either will support Wheeler's proposal as currently written. 

Sources said the plan’s specifics are in flux as Wheeler works to rally support from other commissioners and advocacy groups ahead of Friday’s vote.

“There are still some Commissioners who are listening to educators in the field, and we hope their voices ring loudly in next week’s meeting,” said an education advocate opposed to the proposal.

The Wi-Fi plan follows President Obama’s push to increase connectivity in schools, with wireless access a priority. The ConnectED initiative launched last year aims to get 99 percent of U.S. students “next-generation” Internet access by 2017.

“In a country where we expect free Wi-Fi with our coffee, why shouldn’t we have it in our schools?” Obama said in a speech. 

Educators, though, are criticizing the FCC for committing large amounts of funding exclusively to Wi-Fi equipment and services without increasing the overall E-Rate budget.

“While the Commission has reprogrammed $2 billion in existing funding for the first two years, we have serious concerns about the Commission’s plan and ability to fund years three through five absent a permanent increase in the funding cap,” a coalition of education advocacy groups said in a letter to the agency last month.

The $3 billion in funding for years 2017-2019 comes from eliminating inefficiencies in E-Rate, and redirecting other program funds for non-broadband services, such as phones and pagers.

The FCC should not use the annual $2.4 billion E-Rate budget — slightly less than half of which goes to funding high-speed Internet access — to fund Wi-Fi alone, the groups said.

“We cannot support raiding [E-Rate Internet access] funds – resources beneficiaries depend upon to help meet their ongoing, monthly costs for broadband connectivity – to support Wi-Fi.”

The letter was signed by 13 groups, including the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association and National Rural Education Association.

Education advocates have also criticized the FCC’s plan to allocate Wi-Fi funding to schools based on the size of each applying school’s student body and to libraries based on their square footage.

That approach “grossly oversimplifies the variance in costs and purchasing power,” the education groups said in their June letter to the FCC.

The letter said differences in school size and geographic location can determine the availability and price of Internet access services.

“We strongly believe that the E-rate Program must continue to distribute funds in an equitable way, based on need … and not by a formula that will water down support for all areas,” the groups said.

FCC officials have defended their formula for allocating funds, pointing to data about the scalable costs of Wi-Fi infrastructure.

The budget under Wheeler’s plan will set a minimum funding level for applicants, which officials say will ensure that even small libraries and schools have adequate — and likely more than adequate — funding.

Additionally, officials have noted that Wheeler’s plan will mean the E-Rate program will have consistent funding set aside for Wi-Fi, as opposed to varying low or nonexistent levels in the past.

NEA Director of Government Relations Mary Kusler expressed frustration that the agency is defending its proposal rather than adjusting it in light of educators’ concerns.

"We have not seen the Chairman's office be receptive to the concerns of rank and file educators,” she said.

Wheeler’s critics hope their pressure will bring change — and they have support on Capitol Hill.

Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) is “keenly aware of the valid concerns raised by the education community" and will "formally weigh in” on the agency’s plans, a spokeswoman said.

Rockefeller “expects the FCC to give full and fair consideration to the education community's views since they are on the front lines of the program” and has expressed those concerns to the White House, the spokeswoman added.

The White House, though, has defended Wheeler and said it appreciates his push to meet Obama’s ConnectED goals.

“At the same time, we recognize there is more work to be done and we are committed to doing everything it takes — not only when it comes to wires and wireless, but also support for teachers and access to individualized digital learning from kindergarten to the 12th grade,” a White House spokesman said. 

While some are pushing back on Wheeler’s plans, other advocacy groups have expressed cautious support, encouraging educators to focus on the improvements in the proposal.

Marijke Visser, assistant director of the American Library Association’s Office for Information Technology Policy, pointed to elements of Wheeler’s proposal aimed at making funding easier to access and more transparent.

In addition to the Wi-Fi funding component, Wheeler’s plan would make it easier for schools and libraries to apply in groups, to apply for multiyear costs and to see what other schools and libraries pay for Internet access services. 

Those are “very real, impactful changes” that will help students and library patrons “right away,” she said.

Visser said her group “continues to have some concerns” about the broader connectivity needs of schools and libraries but is confident in the agency’s pledges to continue improving the E-Rate program.

“We’ve been reassured that the Commission will take up the missing pieces in the very near term,” she said.