GOP senator: FCC program hurting rural schools

Two Kansas Republicans want to overhaul a government program to make sure more rural schools can connect to the Internet.  

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Ajit Pai, a Republican member of the Federal Communications Commission who grew up in Kansas, argue the current program is too complex and unfairly weighted toward large, urban schools.

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“The bad news is this federal program meant to close the digital divide is actually making it worse for rural schools,” they wrote in an op-ed in The Wichita Eagle. “A few commonsense reforms, including simplifying the application process and providing certainty to schools, could fix that."

The FCC’s E-Rate program subsidizes broadband Internet programs in schools and libraries, with the goal of giving 99 percent of the country’s students high-speed access to the Web. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is looking to funnel $2 billion of program funding toward providing Wi-Fi access in schools and libraries, a plan that has received pushback from educators.  

But Moran and Pai argued that schools in their home state were already getting the shaft.

Spending for each student in Washington, for instance, is three times greater than for those in Kansas.

“These disparities undermine E-Rate’s core mission of giving rural schools the same technological tools as their urban and suburban counterparts,” they wrote Friday.

Moran and Pai cited the 17-page application to receive E-Rate funding for basic service as one impediment for schools. Schools also have to sign contracts ahead of time, they wrote, which locks them into charges before they know if the government will help offset the costs.

“All of this means that it is expensive and burdensome to apply," they argued.

Applications should be just one page, they offered, and schools should know whether they would get the funding before having to sign contracts with companies.

“To fulfill E-Rate’s promise to all of our students, we must cut the bureaucracy and refocus the program on our children’s needs,” they wrote. “We must create a student-centered E-Rate program.”