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E-rate on Strong Ground Despite Concerns

This past week, I had the opportunity to attend the CoSN conference, one of my favorite annual events. It is encouraging to meet with school leaders and to hear about the great work that is being done to further educational opportunities for students across America (and around the globe.) Technology, fueled by access to the Internet, is empowering students and teachers in remarkable ways.

CoSN is celebrating its 25th anniversary, and I could not help but notice how much more student-centric our conversations have become. Yes, there is still a lot of talk about technology, but the discussion has shifted its focus. It is not technology for technology’s sake. It is about fostering effective student learning… and there may be technologies and digital platforms that can facilitate the process. Students first. Technology second. As it should be.

I was a little perplexed by one thing that happened at the conference. Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler was there receiving accolades for his work in support of schools and libraries, especially the reform of the E-rate program. You will recall that it was under Chairman Wheeler’s leadership that the E-rate program underwent its biggest overhaul. The annual funding cap was increased by more than a billion dollars, and support was restored for on-campus WiFi, which essentially had been eliminated under the old rules. It was a big deal that Wheeler got this done, and our schools and libraries are better for it. He deserves our gratitude.
And then he said this: "Every school ought to be worried" (See Education Week.) Chairman Wheeler is concerned about the future of the E-rate program and changes that the new FCC Chair might make to it.
After Wheeler’s speech, and the EdWeek article, I heard multiple schools express their concern about his comments. (That is what happens when you tell people to worry. They start worrying.) Is the E-rate program going away? The answer is a simple no. The E-rate program is not going away.
Let me explain. There is a world of difference between debating changes to a program versus the need for a program. The current FCC Chair, Ajit Pai, is a vocal proponent of broadband Internet access for schools and is on record supporting the E-rate. Just last month, he said the “E-rate is a program worth fighting for”. I believe him.
  • Will Pai keep the E-rate program? Yes.
  • Is Pai likely to endorse changes that he thinks will improve the program? Yes.
Congress instructed the FCC to create the E-rate program, and, to this day, it enjoys strong bipartisan support. When Wheeler joined the FCC, he had ideas about how to change the E-rate for the better. I suspect that Chairman Pai does, too. This should not surprise anyone. New leadership typically brings new ideas. Some ideas are better than others, and not all change is progress. That idiom will hold true for Pai as much as it did for Wheeler. (Case in point: Wheeler eliminated $800 million of annual support for telephone service even though there is ample room in the E-rate budget to continue supporting it. School and library budgets are still stinging. Perhaps Mr. Pai will consider reversing this change.)
The point of all this is simple: the E-rate program is on strong ground. Leaders from across the political spectrum support it. While there are passionately held beliefs on both sides, and, indeed, there may be an upcoming debate about how to best achieve the E-rate’s goals, no one is questioning if the program should be here.
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