Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Reform federal program to connect classrooms

Originally printed in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, February 21st, 2014 

Based on how much we spend, every child in America should be getting a world-class education, which would include connecting our classrooms to digital opportunities. To get there, the federal government doesn't need to spend more money — the Federal Communications Commission already runs a program called E-Rate that distributes over $2 billion to schools and libraries to purchase communications services each year.

What we do need is real reform in Washington and an end to the waste, fraud and abuse inherent in the current program.

Here's how E-Rate works today: Each year, schools and libraries purchase communications services from an FCC-approved list. If the FCC favors a particular service, the school gets a subsidy (or "discount") of up to 90% of the cost of service — with no hard cap. In contrast, most schools won't receive any discount for less-favored services. The funds for these subsidies come out of the pockets of all Americans via the Universal Service Fund charge on their monthly phone bills.

To put it kindly, today's E-Rate program has some problems. For one, schools have every incentive to gold-plate their networks since the more they spend, the more E-Rate pays. Consider the $73 million the Atlanta public school system got from E-Rate to build an optical fiber network between its schools. Some of that money wired up schools just before they were shut down. Millions were spent on a wireless network before that project was abandoned. Maintaining the network cost millions of dollars, and even after it was built, most students had less than one hour per day of computer use.

Similarly, the discount system is so generous that some schools have little skin in the game, encouraging them to buy services unrelated to student needs. So some schools might give their administrators BlackBerries and use E-Rate funding to pay for wireless phone service, text messaging, voice mail, and data. Others might upgrade the bandwidth available to non-instructional buildings such as athletic facilities and bus depots.

The priority system further distorts the marketplace. For example, if a rural school wants to connect its students' laptops and tablets in the classroom, it either can buy cellular data connections for each of its students or it can buy cost-effective Wi-Fi routers. But the priority system puts a thumb on the wrong side of the scale: E-Rate likely will cover up to 90% of the costs of the more expensive cellular service but won't pay a dime for the routers. That doesn't make any sense.

And it gets worse. The E-Rate program is supposed to be about connecting kids to next-generation technologies, but it still prioritizes basic telephone service — to the tune of half a billion dollars per year. Indeed, a school can get funding for paging service (remember pagers?) and international long distance more easily than it can get money to wire up a classroom. That makes no sense.

Instead of throwing more money at the problem, we should turn the current E-Rate program into a fiscally responsible one that puts kids and common sense first.

We should end the incentive to spend more to get more by allocating E-Rate's limited dollars on a more equitable per-student basis, with higher allocations for schools serving rural and low-income students. And let's replace the discount system with a more responsible matching requirement: Every school should be required to match a higher percentage of the E-Rate dollars it gets. With common-sense reforms like these, schools will be more prudent about how they spend E-Rate funds than they are now.

A student-centered program also means ending the subsidies for telephone service and other services unrelated to student learning. It means ending the skewed system of prioritizing services and giving local officials the flexibility to spend their E-Rate budget more efficiently. And it means having a high-ranking school official, like a principal, certify that E-Rate funds will be used to benefit students.

Real reform also means empowering parents to check up on what schools are doing with E-Rate funding. Schools and service providers should disclose more clearly and in detail exactly what students are getting with federal funds. All of this information should be collected and made available on a single website that would allow any American to see with specificity how any school in the nation has spent its E-Rate money.

A student-centered E-Rate program would end the abuse of the program and make sure that the money each of us contributes to E-Rate actually focuses on students. Real reform would connect children throughout Wisconsin with next-generation opportunities — and we are working to make that promise a reality.

By: Ron Johnson and Ajit Pai