The Federal Communications Commission voted to expand the program-funding cap for E-Rate Thursday, giving schools in rural and underprivileged areas the chance to increase broadband and Wi-Fi connections in schools and libraries.
In a 3-2 vote along party lines, the program’s spending cap will rise from $2.4 billion to $3.9 billion, funded by a 16-cent tax increase on people’s monthly phone bills. The increase helps boost a plan voted on in July that adds $5 billion to E-Rate over the next five years, potentially providing a 75 percent increase in Wi-Fi funding for rural schools and a 60 percent increase for urban schools.
A number of educators from across the country attended the meeting Thursday, extolling the virtues of classrooms that have been outfitted for high-speed Internet access. Daisy Dyer Duerr, a principal at St. Paul High School in St. Paul, Arkansas, spoke about how she needs Internet connectivity in order to educate rural students who otherwise would have limited access to a range of subjects.
“If you are going to go be a deep-sea diver, you need to know how to swim,” Duerr said. “We have to throw them out in the water and give them accessibility.”
Dallas Dance, superintendent of Baltimore County Schools in Maryland, said that, with increased Internet connectivity, graduation rates increased and discipline issues have dropped.
“Our students have Wi-Fi in McDonald’s and Starbucks, but not schools,” Dance said. “This can’t exist.”
Democratic Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel joined FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler in voting for the increase. Clyburn said her vote was particularly meaningful to her because many of her family members are educators.
“This is not new or trivial for me. It is completely woven into my personal fabric,” Clyburn said. “Broadband is the greatest equalizer of our time, but this only holds true if everyone has access.”
Republican Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly dissented, claiming that the 16-cent per month tax increase was a “bureaucratic yoke” on American taxpayers and the guidelines in the program will lead wasteful spending.
“Enabling wasteful spending like this isn’t courageous or compassionate, it’s just crazy,” Pai said. “The commission shies away from making any hard choices and instead just pours more money into a broken system.”
Before voicing his approval, Wheeler took the dissenters to task for putting a 16-cent tax increase over the program’s expansion.
“I’m aghast at the hostility to giving students the tools they need to get a 21st century education when we know as a fact that two-thirds of schools have inadequate connectivity,” Wheeler said. “The greatest moral responsibility that any generation has is the preparation of the next generation. Sixteen cents a month, less the cost of a soda at McDonald’s, is small price to pay for that great responsibility that we all have.”
Education Superhighway, a nonprofit organization that works to connect classrooms to the Internet, applauded Thursday’s decision. “This bold plan of action will ensure the students of today are fully prepared to be the workforce and leaders of tomorrow,” Education SuperHighway CEO Evan Marwell said in a statement.
In a phone interview with FedScoop, Marwell said the decision will allow the vast majority of the country’s schools to have wireless and Wi-Fi connections within the next five years. It also will increase competition in the marketplace as schools and service providers move toward fiber connections.
However, Marwell said the greater impact will come in bringing high-speed Internet connectivity to places that are severely lacking in access.
“When you bring broadband and you bring fiber to a school, you bring fiber to where the people are. By bringing fiber out to schools, it will be the single most important thing that’s ever been done to close the digital divide in this country,” Marwell told FedScoop. “Everybody says ‘Oh, this is a great investment in schools.’ This is a great investment in America.”