FCC program intended for student Internet pays for teacher text messaging

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
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Federal taxpayer funds intended to connect students to the Internet are going to pay for teachers’ text messages and phone bills, something an FCC commissioner is looking to change.

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai unveiled on Tuesday a plan to rein in the E-Rate Program.

Also called the Schools and Libraries Program, the E-Rate Program was created as part of the FCC’s congressionally mandated Universal Service Fund (USF), subsidizes schools and libraries with the ability to obtain discounts for telecommunications and Internet services.

The USF, created by Congress in the Telecommunication Act of 1996, also funds Lifeline — the subsidized cell phone program, popularly called “Obama phones.”

Pai, before a packed room at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), called attention to the FCC’s current inability to hold the program accountable, and the program’s misplaced and inverted funding priorities.

Connecting a school building to the Internet, and providing wireless phone service for school administrators, for example, are considered “priority one” services and are more likely to be subsidized.

Connecting specific classrooms to the Internet, on the other hand, is considered a “priority two” service, and is unlikely to be funded by the program.

The E-Rate program began subsidizing text messaging and Voice-over-IP (VoIP) services for school administrators, considered “priority one services,” in July 2010.

While acknowledging the utility of teachers and administrators having Blackberries and smartphones, he said that should be something paid for with their own money.

“Congress did not ask the FCC to subsidize school administrators’ anytime minutes,” he said, stating that the program should refocus the money back on poor and rural students.

“Remember, the E-Rate program was specifically designed to target poor schools and rural schools, those that the digital revolution is most likely to leave behind,” said Pai.

In order to address the problems that plague the program, including a consultant industry focused on helping schools navigate the E-Rate Program bureaucracy, Pai proposed that program be reformed to focus instead on the students.

“He argued for establishing a per-student funding system, refocusing funding toward advanced technologies, simplifying the application process, and increasing transparency and accountability,” wrote AEI.

TechFreedom, a free market think tank, sent a letter to acting FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn urging her to take up Pai’s proposal.

“These reforms would make the program more efficient by reducing the regulatory burdens on schools, and introducing more local responsibility, accountability and transparency,” said the organization.

On Wednesday, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton and Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden applauded Pai’s proposal.

The two Republican congressman said in joint statement that Pai’s proposal would help “reduce the bureaucratic red tape” that has hampered up the program.

Seton Motley, founder and president of the limited government advocacy organization, Less Government, told The Daily Caller that he was “heartened by and impressed with” Pai’s move to reform the problems with the fund, but thought that education should be dealt with on the state and local level.

“Why should 49 other states pay for any one’s school Internet connection?” asked Motley in an emailed comment.

“Localism rightly understood means local control of local schools, because it’s best for the students. So let’s let California take care of California – because California knows what’s best for California. And Texas for Texas.  Etc.,” Motley said.

“A stellar way to massively increase efficiency and productivity is to not have to run everything through the DC Disaster Area,” he said.

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