Teachers Give Failing Grade to Obama’s Push for Tech in Schools

The FCC should expand the size of its school Internet program, teachers say.

A student shows US President Barack Obama how he is working to creat an ebook with an iPad in a classroom at Buck Lodge Middle School in Adelphi, Maryland, on February 4, 2014 before speaking detailing progress toward his ConnectED goal of connecting 99 percent of students to next-generation broadband and wireless technology within five years.
National Journal
Brendan Sasso and Laura Ryan
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Brendan Sasso and Laura Ryan
June 24, 2014, 1:15 a.m.

Teach­ers are un­im­pressed with the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s plan to up­grade tech­no­logy in schools.

Den­nis Van Roekel, the pres­id­ent of the Na­tion­al Edu­ca­tion As­so­ci­ation, said he is “bey­ond frus­trated” with a plan an­nounced Fri­day by Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion Chair­man Tom Wheel­er.

“We feel the chair­man is miss­ing the op­por­tun­ity to seize the mo­ment and truly ad­dress the items that will bring broad­band to the com­munit­ies who need it the most,” the head of the na­tion’s largest teach­ers uni­on said in a state­ment. “This fail­ure will have a neg­at­ive im­pact on stu­dents and edu­cat­ors, es­pe­cially in urb­an, rur­al, and low-dens­ity pop­u­lated areas.”

Real re­form would re­quire the ad­min­is­tra­tion to spend more money on the ini­ti­at­ive, ac­cord­ing to Van Roekel and oth­er edu­ca­tion ad­voc­ates.

Pres­id­ent Obama an­nounced a plan last year to bring high-speed In­ter­net to 99 per­cent of U.S. stu­dents with­in five years. With Con­gress block­ing nearly all of Obama’s do­mest­ic ini­ti­at­ives, the is­sue is one of the few areas where Obama can make pro­gress without con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al.

The plan hinges on the FCC over­haul­ing “E-Rate,” a fund that has sub­sid­ized In­ter­net ac­cess in schools and lib­rar­ies for nearly 20 years. Money for the fund comes from fees on monthly phone bills. 

Un­der the plan the FCC un­veiled Fri­day, the agency will be­gin spend­ing $1 bil­lion every year to pay for Wi-Fi ac­cess in schools. In a blog post, Wheel­er ar­gued that Wi-Fi is a cost-ef­fect­ive way to en­sure that stu­dents can use tab­lets and di­git­al text­books. The agency is set to vote on the plan next month.  

But the pro­pos­al would not in­crease the over­all size of the E-Rate pro­gram, which provides about $2.4 bil­lion to schools and lib­rar­ies an­nu­ally. In­stead, for the first two years, the agency will draw from a pot of re­serve money it rolled over from pre­vi­ous years. The FCC also plans to squeeze out ad­di­tion­al funds by mak­ing the pro­gram more ef­fi­cient and by cut­ting fund­ing for out­dated tech­no­lo­gies like pagers and voice mail.

But edu­ca­tion groups are skep­tic­al the FCC can up­grade the pro­gram without spend­ing more money.

“We be­lieve any ef­fort to mod­ern­ize the E-Rate pro­gram must in­clude in­creas­ing the E-Rate fund­ing cap,” a co­ali­tion of edu­ca­tion groups in­clud­ing NEA, the School Su­per­in­tend­ents As­so­ci­ation, the Amer­ic­an Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers, and the Na­tion­al PTA wrote in a let­ter to the FCC. “We can­not wait any longer to ad­dress the crit­ic­al need for ad­di­tion­al, sus­tained E-Rate fund­ing.”

The groups also ex­pressed con­cern about a new for­mula for dis­trib­ut­ing some funds based on the num­ber of stu­dents in schools. The FCC should fo­cus on the needs of schools, the groups ar­gued.  

An FCC of­fi­cial em­phas­ized that the agency has not ruled out in­creas­ing the over­all size of the pro­gram if it’s ne­ces­sary to meet the pres­id­ent’s goals. The cur­rent pro­pos­al may only be a first step, the of­fi­cial said.

Matt Lehrich, a White House spokes­man, said the White House has not seen the de­tails of the FCC’s pro­pos­al but that of­fi­cials ap­pre­ci­ate Wheel­er’s com­mit­ment to the pres­id­ent’s goal of ex­pand­ing school In­ter­net ac­cess.

“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,” Lehrich said. 

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