E-rate Modernization: Promoting Connectivity for 21st Century Learning Environments

Blog Post
Sept. 23, 2013

Last week, the New America Foundation’s Education Policy Program and Open Technology Institute jointly submitted recommendations to the Federal Communications Commission outlining ways to modernize the Commission’s E-rate program. Our recommendations underscore a more modern understanding of how connectivity is leveraged by schools, libraries and communities throughout the country to promote 21st century learning.

As OTI’s Danielle Kehl and Sarah Morris discuss in the Dispatches from the Digital Frontier blog:

Schools and libraries face enormous challenges in ensuring that they are adequately connected to broadband services that enable 21st century learning. Although the E-rate program, which helps schools and libraries obtain affordable telecommunications services, has had tremendous success in helping schools get connected, upgrading capacity has become increasingly difficult in recent years.

While capacity has been lagging in schools and libraries throughout the country, we increasingly need more of it to meet 21st century demands.

Schools and libraries are physical and symbolic anchors in their communities and, especially for areas with the highest need, are a central point for disseminating many needed resources. Public libraries, for example, offer some 3.75 million children's and educational programs to the public, according to the Institute for Museum and Library Services. We believe that schools and libraries should have the flexibility to maintain open Wi-Fi hotspots—not only during non-school and non-business hours, but even when school is in session and libraries are open (as long as it is not disruptive to students or library patrons).

Further, we provide several specific recommendations addressing the need for greater program parity. Some of the proposed funding changes put forward by other stakeholders—such as allocating E-rate dollars to schools on a per-pupil basis—could actually lead to greater inequity due to the highly variable cost of broadband service across the country. In thinking through alternative funding structures for the program, making sure the funding structure takes into account these variations is crucial.

We also caution against tying E-rate funding to specific educational outcomes. Broadband access is a necessary component for building 21st century learning environments, and we should understand how connectivity expands the tools and resources that schools and libraries can provide. It is highly problematic, however, to use student outcomes to determine the level of infrastructure investment a school or library should receive.

Additionally, we urge the Commission to look for ways to promote greater equity in E-rate’s treatment of support for our country’s youngest learners. Currently, the Commission recognizes state definitions of elementary and secondary schooling for funding decisions—unfortunately, in some cases this has led to unequal access to support. This is most clear in the case of pre-kindergarten; due to state definitions of elementary school, a pre-K classroom in Florida, for example, is eligible for E-rate funds while a pre-K classroom in Georgia is not.

To read more on our E-rate recommendations check out more coverage on OTI’s Dispatches from the Digital Frontier blog or view our full recommendations, available through the FCC’s electronic comment filing system."

Related Topics
E-Rate Program