Bridging America’s ‘digital divide,’ National education organizations urge FCC to increase E-Rate funding

BY Elizabeth Jones  June 2, 2014 at 5:41 PM EDT
Lawrence Berkeley Nat'l Lab. Photo by Roy Kaltschmidt/Flickr

Lawrence Berkeley Nat’l Lab. Photo by Roy Kaltschmidt/Flickr

Many school districts across the country are unprepared to support the bandwidth it takes to accommodate new education trends in digital learning and testing. In fact, fewer than one in three of America’s classrooms have Internet access, according to the White House.

That is why 19 national education and library organizations from the Education and Library Networks Coalition representing 14,000 public school districts, 100,000 public schools, 31,000 private schools and more than 16,400 public libraries collaborated on a letter urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to continue the support and strengthening of the E-Rate program. The universal service support program helps schools and libraries obtain affordable telecommunications services, broadband Internet access and internal network connections.

As a part of the ConnectED initiative, President Barack Obama has asked the FCC, along with companies like Apple, Microsoft, Sprint, and Verizon, to help connect 99 percent of America’s students to high-speed broadband over the next five years.

“We’ve got a down payment to start connecting more than 15,000 schools and twenty million students over the next two years, without adding a dime to the deficit,” said the President in his State of the Union Address.

Yet organizations such as The School Superintendents Association, the American Federation of Teachers and the American Library Association say more funding is required.

“If the Commission is serious about ensuring that all schools and libraries have sufficient high-capacity bandwidth to make use of the digital tools, content, services and assessments, we cannot wait until some indeterminate future date for additional E-Rate support,” the letter reads.

As the “digital divide” between well-resourced and under-resourced districts persists and standardized tests like the ACT switch to completely digital platforms, these educational organizations estimate schools will need $2.41 billion to reach the 99 percent ConnectED goal.

In addition to addressing the need for more E-Rate funding, the letter asks that the FCC maintain its focus on equity and poverty. The agency’s recent decision on Net Neutrality that allows internet service providers to charge content companies for space on an “internet fast-lane” has worried education experts who fear such a pay-for-speed system would advantage commercial over educational content.

“It is not good enough to ensure that high-capacity broadband reaches school and library doors; adequate bandwidth must reach every building and classroom and every student, educator and library patron,” read the letter. “Otherwise, the promise that broadband can provide our students and library patrons will be lost.”

The following organizations collaborated on and signed the letter to the FCC:

AASA: The School Superintendents Association
American Federation of Teachers
American Library Association
Association of Education Service Agencies
Consortium for School Networking
International Society for Technology in Education
Learning First Alliance
National Association of Elementary School Principals
National Association of Federally Impacted Schools
National Association of Independent Schools
National Association of Secondary School Principals
National Catholic Educational Association
National Education Association
National Rural Education Association
National Rural Education Advocacy Coalition
National School Boards Association
Organizations Concerned with Rural Education
Rural School and Community Trust
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

This story and PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.