The Trump administration has trashed a report touting the successes of the federal E-Rate program that is putting nearly $4 billion a year into equalizing schools’ access to the internet.
And that’s making educators nervous — particularly in schools with high percentages of low-income students like the Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan., school districts that get the lion’s share of the area’s E-Rate dollars.
“We can’t go backward,” said Joe Fives, the director of technology and information services for the Kansas City, Kan., School District. The district has relied heavily on the E-Rate program since its inception in the Clinton administration to support millions of dollars worth in bandwidth and connectivity hardware.
“We’re light years ahead of where we were,” he said.
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Schools are wary because the Federal Communications Commission earlier this month put out an order rescinding a report on E-Rate that had been filed by the FCC in the final days of the Obama administration.
The new FCC chairman — appointed by President Donald Trump within days of his inauguration — is Kansas native Ajit Pai, who had served as a commissioner at the FCC under President Barack Obama.
The voided report particularly recounted successes in an effort to modernize the E-Rate program beginning in 2014 by focusing on expanding internet access dollars into homes and locations outside of schools. The effort means to help low-income children continue educational access during homework hours.
The modernization effort, forwarded by former chairman Tom Wheeler, boosted the FCC’s annual spending cap from $2.4 billion to $3.9 billion.
The future of the expanded E-Rate program is unclear.
A spokesman for the commission said in Education Week magazine that the commission voided the report because it “does not reflect the official views of the agency.” The commission could not comment on the report’s findings or conclusions, the spokesman said, because the report “failed to follow proper procedures.”
It is unusual to rescind a report, but the significance of the FCC’s action will depend on the policy actions Pai advocates in the days to come, said Blair Levin, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the former FCC chief of staff under President Bill Clinton.
Many FCC rules and orders enacted in Obama’s last month were also undone.
Pai, in statements made upon his appointment and on the commission’s web site, says that closing the digital divide is one of the agency’s prime missions, promising a “comprehensive plan to promote broadband deployment to all Americans.”
But his actions toward E-Rate, as a commissioner of the FCC and now as chairman, seem at odds with that mission in public schools, said Phillip Lovell, vice president for policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education in Washington, D.C.
“He’s fundamentally laying the groundwork to rescind policy that really advanced the ball for next-generation learning,” Lovell said.
The Kansas City, Kan., School District was one of the first in the region to invest in school-issued laptop computers for all of its high school students in the mid-2000s. The Kansas City, Mo., School District and many others in the area have since done the same.
E-Rate doesn’t fund the computers or other end-uses of technology, but supports the costly infrastructure needed to make school and library internet services work effectively — such as increasing bandwidth.
Many studies have touted positive impacts of the program, although the Justice Department has prosecuted companies and school officials for abuse or waste in the program in several instances over its history.
The FCC’s rescinding of rules, orders and reports under Pai reflect a changing political landscape for the FCC, Levin said.
E-Rate was funded by Congress with bipartisan support, Levin said. The FCC overall tended toward a more bipartisan atmosphere through the Clinton and Bush administrations.
The past transitions in leadership also happened “in a bipartisan way,” he said. “But historical factors have made the shift more dramatic.”