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Washington Memo: Here’s a way to bring rural classrooms into the digital age

Last modified: 2/4/2014 5:43:01 PM
In his State of the Union address, President Obama rightly highlighted the importance of high-speed broadband access to America’s schools. Students in all areas of the country should be able to harness the power of the internet – and we have a vision to ensure that rural classrooms aren’t left behind.

As parents, we want our children to have better opportunities than we had growing up.

America’s education system needs to prepare the next generation to compete in a rapidly changing world – a world that is increasingly digital – and digital learning requires reliable internet access.

A broadband connection helps expand horizons for students. It puts extraordinary educational resources only a mouse click away – helping America’s children visualize and understand topics like cell division and the solar system in a way that textbooks might not.

Congress realized the power of digital learning 18 years ago when it established the E‑Rate program, which is the nation’s largest education technology program.

Managed by the Federal Communications Commission, E‑Rate allows schools and libraries to buy technology services (such as internet access) at a discount from communications providers. E-Rate then compensates those providers for the amount of the discount.

Lower-income schools and a few rural schools receive larger discounts than their wealthier counterparts. And federal rules prioritize who gets how much for what service.

A core component of E‑Rate’s mission is to give rural students the same tech-
driven tools as urban and suburban students. Congress had the right idea in the 1990s, but E‑Rate today isn’t achieving its intended goals. And it’s not a matter of how much we spend, but how we spend it.

The reality is that E‑Rate is leaving students in rural America behind. The way funding is currently distributed, states like New Hampshire, Vermont, Montana and South Dakota get the least E‑Rate funding per student.

In fact, New Hampshire is dead last when it comes to return on E‑Rate investment. Granite Staters get just 25 cents back for every dollar they pay into the program through the universal service charge on their monthly phone bill. Meanwhile, in 2011, New Jersey received three times more funding per student than New Hampshire. That’s not fair: New Jersey is more urban and has a higher median income than New Hampshire, and broadband is more expensive in rural areas.

So why is rural America subsidizing internet connectivity for more densely populated areas?

It’s partly because of the administrative hurdles in the E‑Rate application process. It can take hours of paperwork, months of waiting and an understanding of E‑Rate’s convoluted and antiquated rules to even have a chance of successfully obtaining federal funding.

The most successful schools tend to hire outside consultants to navigate the process for them – an option that many schools, especially small and rural ones, can’t afford. More important, they shouldn’t have to.

We need a student‑centered E‑Rate program. That starts with simplifying the process by reducing the paperwork needed to apply for funding and distributing aid to schools on a more equitable per-student basis (rather than the complex discount formula that the program now uses). And that means giving schools the flexibility to spend E-Rate money on technology that directly benefit students.

We also need to end the subsidies that result in citizens from rural states like New Hampshire paying for technology services in higher population states like New Jersey.

Preparing our children to succeed in the digital world of tomorrow requires us to connect them today. E-Rate must reflect the needs of today’s students, regardless of which school they attend.

A student‑centered E‑Rate program would give smaller schools in rural areas a better chance to compete with their urban and suburban counterparts. It would help deliver a brighter future for children in New Hampshire and throughout rural America – and we stand ready to work with the president to ensure that E-Rate lives up to its promise.

(U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire is a member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Ajit Pai is a member of the Federal Communications Commission.)


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