Connecting the students in the poorest schools in America should be the first priority of the E-rate program. Instead, E-rate funding rules are stacked in favor of wealthy schools and big telecomm companies. Why is this acceptable to so many people?

Let’s assume you are the superintendent of a poor, rural school district and you would like your students to have Wi-Fi Internet access in their classrooms. You are hoping that the E-rate program can help. After all, that is precisely the type of connectivity the program was designed to promote.

Will you get funding? Unfortunately, you won’t know the answer to that question until wealthier urban schools get their phone bills paid. That’s the dirty little secret of today’s E-rate program. Wealthy schools get their funding for telecomm and Internet services, while poorer schools are denied funding for the infrastructure they need to get their students online.

This is all the result of the FCC “priority” system – a system that skews demand, limits choices, and forces schools to make decisions based on complex funding rules rather than their actual needs. As illustrated in this analysis, the deck is stacked against anything that isn’t designated Priority One by the FCC. Priority Two goods and services have more regulatory requirements (like technology plans and contracts), are much less likely to be funded, take twice as long to get processed, and are almost twice as likely to be reduced or modified.

Why should the funding for poor schools be limited by a priority system that so clearly favors the telecomm and Internet companies? Why should funding Internet access to wealthy schools take precedence over the networking needs of poorer schools, especially those in rural areas?

Despite the many critics who want to keep the current system in place, I believe that change is necessary. As outlined in the Funds For Learning proposal, I believe the FCC should:

  • Make poor and rural schools the top priority of the program. Period.
  • Restore competition by eliminating priority rules that favor one solution or vendor over another.
  • Keep the current discount rate system and not take away support for vital services.

This type of reform would give schools the freedom to choose for themselves the most cost-effective solutions to fit their needs; it would erase a system that prefers to support services to wealthy, urban schools over the networking needs of poorer, rural schools; and it would stop the FCC from picking which services (and therefore vendors) are best suited to help get our nation’s students online.

If I could set the E-rate program’s first priority, it would be connecting students. What is your first priority for the E-rate?