E-Rate Funding Needs Speedy Recovery to Get Schools Up to Par

Seventeen years ago, a bipartisan group of legislators thrust American classrooms into the 21st century with their successful championing of the E-Rate – an Internet access program that still brings the world to classrooms and libraries across the United States.

The program called for installing computers in classrooms, connecting them to the Internet and developing rich, digital, educational content. In those days, the public school classroom connection rate was in the low teens, the student-to-computer ratio was likely more than 12 to 1, and handheld computers were called calculators.

Since that time, the E-Rate has delivered discounted telecommunication, Internet access and internal connections to our nation’s schools and libraries. The launch of the E-Rate inaugurated America’s sprint to wire classrooms and, ultimately, provided mobile wireless access. Today, virtually all classrooms have at least a basic connection to the Internet, and the vast majority support wireless access for tablets and handheld devices.

However, investment in the E-Rate has slowed at a time when innovation in teaching, educational technology and curriculum has accelerated. The use of multimedia is improving interactivity and engaging young learners like never before. Virtual learning is skyrocketing. However, live streaming, video content and webcasts require fast Internet connections.

E-Rate investment has remained essentially flat since the program’s second year, with the program having to turn down more than $2 billion in internal connections applications in each of the past two years due to insufficient funds.

As a result, many of our students are connected to the Internet but at speeds that degrade the ability to make use of it for teaching and learning.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world is catching up or surpassing us in broadband and educational achievement. Since 1996, South Korean students have made great academic strides, earning a silver medal in the 2012 Learning Curve educational ranking by the Economist Intelligencer Group. U.S. students finished in 18th place. One factor in South Korea’s rise and America’s slump is its commitment to technology-rich schools. The South Korean government has already invested in high-speed broadband for all schools and is seeking to put digital textbooks in the hands of all of its students by 2016.

It is no surprise that South Korea is winning the educational race. So how can we get America back on track?

The White House’s ConnectED initiative, which aims to connect 99 percent of America’s students to the Internet at high speeds within five years, is a good start. Recently, the Federal Communications Commission took steps to update the E-Rate’s rules to improve efficiencies, set bandwidth goals and, hopefully, increase E-Rate’s antiquated funding levels. Everyone who cares about our nation’s education should tell the FCC they support greater E-Rate investments.

Providing schools with a faster digital connection will help our students build the skills needed to succeed in college and career and compete globally. To see the effect of technology in schools, look no further than North Carolina’s Mooresville Graded School District – the site of President Obama’s ConnectED announcement.

After years of underperforming student test scores, MGSD five years ago began transitioning to a fully digital learning environment. Today, Mooresville students have their own devices, connected 24/7, and are learning in a personalized fashion. While technology alone is not the reason, it has been the catalyst for some astounding test results. Mooresville student scores on state high-stakes tests improved from 68 percent to 89 percent (second highest in the state), and its four-year cohort graduation rate improved from 68 percent to 90 percent (third-highest in the state).

A number of U.S. districts are following Mooresville’s lead, but many more need to do so if our students are to succeed in college and career. The federal government must invest in education technology, particularly in broadband through the E-Rate.

Hoping to catch up to the competition by spending the same amount on broadband as 15 years ago is a recipe for failure, leading America to a permanent place at the bottom of the world academic rankings.

Dr. Jim Goodnight is CEO of SAS in Cary, NC. Keith Krueger is CEO of the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking.

View original in Raleigh News & Observer