We are on the verge of a revolution. Game-changing technologies are empowering teachers and engaging students in ways that have never before been possible. But too often our children are trying to learn skills for tomorrow with dial-up speeds of the past. This is why a growing chorus of American leaders is calling on the FCC to modernize the E-Rate program in order to connect 99 percent of America’s students to high-speed broadband within 5 years. This needed modernization can help deliver the broadband every school needs, creating the opportunities every child deserves.
However, in a February 19 Op-Ed in The Hill titled “Taking from the poor and giving to the ConnectED,” Thomas Hazlett and Scott Wallsten argue against giving students access to the Internet, against modernizing and strengthening the successful E-Rate program, and instead argue forcefully for disconnecting our children from a brighter, more-connected future.
The E-Rate program has been a tremendously positive force for our schools. Since 1997 it has helped ensure that almost every school has access to basic Internet connections. But as technologies change and bandwidth demands increase, the E-Rate program has not kept pace with the information age. And, rather than seeking to mend it, these authors would rather end it.
While railing against technology in the classroom, Hazlett and Wallsten cite the “laudable Khan Academy instructional videos” as a “computer application that has proven its worth.” They suggest that today’s school Internet access is sufficient because these videos can be “accessed even on low-bandwidth connections.” But that’s simply not true. More than 100 students in New Mexico recently wrote letters to Sal Khan, the leader behind the innovative Khan Academy, to ask him to teach at their school because their Internet access was too slow to consistently access the Khan Academy lessons.
It is one of the reasons that Sal Khan joined with 50 of the nation’s top CEOs in support of E-Rate modernization to bring faster Internet access to our schools. The group of CEOs includes leading innovators and investors from American Express, Autodesk, Adobe, Bloomberg, Ebay, Google, HP, Intuit, Netflix, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley, Xerox, and Yahoo among others. Their joint letter calls on the FCC to “act boldly to modernize the E‐Rate program.”
It is not just our CEOs who are calling for improved Internet access in our schools, it is parents, teachers, school administrators, community leaders, and growing bipartisan voices concerned about ensuring our children have access to the technological tools they need to compete and succeed in the global economy. In fact, the current E-Rate modernization efforts were recommended by the bipartisan LEAD Commission, advanced by a bipartisan unanimous FCC vote, and supported by more than two dozen House members in a bipartisan letter. To quote LEAD Commissioner and former George W. Bush Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, “this is not and should not be a partisan issue – it’s a matter of doing what’s best for the future of our country by investing in the digital learning resources that allow teachers and students to remain globally competitive.”
These leaders know that high-speed broadband isn’t just an educational necessity; it’s a competitive imperative. Around the world, countries are taking action to ensure that their students have the broadband they need for the global economy. Korea leads the way with 100 percent of its schools already connected to high-speed broadband, closely followed by programs in Australia, Finland, Ireland, New Zealand, and Singapore. It is no coincidence that all but one of these countries outperforms the United States in reading, math, and science. These nations understand that in today’s global economy, what you earn is dependent on what you learn, and getting hired often depends on being wired.
Yet Hazlett and Wallsten want to talk “old school,” and come out swinging to preserve the past. They attack the move away from chalk, and claim today’s dial-up Internet speeds are fast enough for teaching our children. To make the case against the Internet, they incorrectly argue that we have “already hit” the target of connecting 99 percent of our students to high-speed broadband. Let us share what we at EducationSuperHighway have learned through three quarters of a million speed tests in 25 percent of America’s K-12 schools through last spring – 72 percent of our schools lack the Internet infrastructure needed for digital learning, leaving more than 40 million of our students behind.
High-speed broadband is an educational equalizer and a learning accelerator. If we do this right, imagine what it will mean for a young girl growing up in rural America who can now take an online AP class, even if her school is too small to offer it. Imagine if we could ensure every inner city child had access to the same universe of knowledge as the most affluent suburban student. Imagine if we could pipe in experts from around the country over videoconference or provide foreign language classes not offered locally. Across America, the students with the speed they need are connecting to a world of educational opportunities that engage them in new and innovative ways, while 40 million of our children stare at the hourglass waiting for their future to download.
People are right to ask that every E-Rate dollar be spent as efficiently and effectively as possible. There are changes that can and should be made to modernize, expand, and strengthen the successful E-Rate program. But in arguing against reform, Hazlett and Wallsten are missing the opportunity to channel funding that is today prioritized toward 20th century services such as long distance calling and paging; funds that should be reprioritized to give our children access to a higher speed future.
If we want smarter kids, we need a smarter E-Rate – one that connects our schools to high-speed broadband, maximizes the bang for every buck, and makes critical investments in extending gigabit broadband to every school, and Wi-Fi to every classroom. Nowhere is the opportunity so vast, the need so urgent, and the policy so vital for advancing a brighter, more connected educational future for our students.
Marwell is CEO of EducationSuperHighway.