Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a series outlining the recommendations of the Aspen Institute Task Force on Learning and the Internet. Tomorrow, we’ll be publishing Part 3, which further explores the FCC’s new E-Rate proposal. Click here for Part 1.

Last week, the Aspen Institute Task Force on Learning and the Internet concluded its year-long analysis of how young people learn today and how to optimize learning and innovation within a trusted environment. The resulting report – Learner at the Center of a Networked World – provides a comprehensive list of recommendations for schools, government, parents, businesses, and nonprofits that will help put each American student at the center of his or her education world.

But, as the report thoughtfully points out, this exciting new vision of education is not possible until all of our students have access to high-capacity broadband.

That’s where the federal E-Rate program comes in.

Since 1997, the E-Rate program has provided financial support to connect schools and libraries to the Internet. And, thanks to the program, nearly every school in the United States now has at least basic Internet access. Unfortunately, most schools do not have the broadband capacity to support the digital curricular materials, online and blended learning programs, and online assessments that are required to place our students at the center of a “networked world,” as the Aspen Task Force promises.

That’s why the Aspen Task Force “strongly supports” the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) ongoing efforts to modernize and reform the E-Rate program to provide more schools and libraries with high-capacity broadband connections. This support is informed by having three former FCC Commissioners, who have wrestled with how to use various policy levers to accelerate broadband build-out to schools and underserved areas, serve on the Task Force.

The Task Force also reinforces the work of ExcelinEd, through its Digital Learning Now initiative, in not just advancing digital learning opportunities, but also the broadband reforms needed to enable them.

Working with beneficiaries of the program and next-generation education thought leaders, we joined the Council of Chief State School Officers (CSSO), the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), the Clay Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, the Alliance for Excellent Education, and the Knowledge Alliance to argue for a series of common sense reforms. Together, these reforms will make the program work better for schools and libraries:

  • Fiscally sustainable. The FCC should embrace reforms that encourage applicants to use every dollar as efficiently and effectively as possible to improve our schools’ broadband future; limit waste, fraud and abuse; and minimize the impact on the monthly phone bills of all Americans, particularly low-income individuals.
  • Internal connections.The FCC should reorganize the existing priority system to target E-Rate funds to support high-speed broadband both to and within schools and libraries.
  • Simplify and streamline. The FCC’s E-Rate reform efforts must simplify the application process and give applicants the certainty they need to develop and implement multi-year technology plans. As Commissioner Pai has noted, the “E-Rate process is so complicated that it can deter schools from participating in the first place.” A U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) evaluation of the program agreed, also noting that an American Library Association (ALA) survey found that nearly 40% of their members did not apply because the process was too complicated; furthermore, 23% of rejected applicants were denied for failure to correctly carry out application procedures.
  • Prioritize consortium fundingAccording to a Funds for Learning analysis, it takes 294 days on average for a consortium to receive a funding decision for Priority 1 services compared to 194 days for a single district applicant. Thus, joining a consortium in the E-Rate program as currently structured means accepting an extra 100 day waiting period of uncertainty. The FCC should act expeditiously to remove this impediment and instead create incentives for consortia.
  • Support for mobile learning and other next generation learning models. It would be a mistake for the FCC to simply update its rules to reflect the immediate needs of schools and libraries. Instead, the FCC should continue to explore ways to reform the program to better support the continued evolution of online learning, blended learning, and other yet-to-be developed models of 21st century education.

For example, Florida Virtual School, (FLVS) the leading online school in the nation, submitted comments noting that “while the total telecommunications and ISP costs to support FLVS were more than $53 million in the 2008-09 school year, the E-rate reimbursement was only $5,237. In other words, while FLVS’s entire instructional model is built around broadband, the E-rate only reimbursed 0.01% of the total broadband and telecommunication costs incurred by students, teachers, and the school.”

Digital Learning Now also recently joined over 100 school districts, digital learning advocates, businesses, civil rights organizations, and education reform organizations in a consensus letter calling for E-Rate reform focused on modernization, simplification, and fiscal discipline.

Last Friday, the FCC took an important first step toward reform and modernization when Tom Wheeler circulated to his fellow Commissioners a draft proposal. In part two of this post, we’ll discuss the proposal as well as our recommendations for ensuring that the E-Rate program continues to help schools achieve the student-centered learning model envisioned by the Aspen Task Force.