FCC Approves Big Spending On School Internet

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Blake Neff Reporter
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Every American with a phone line will be paying a few cents more on their bills after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted Thursday to approve more money for schools to pay for the Internet and other technology.

The School and Libraries Program of the Universal Service Fund, better known as E-Rate, is a federal program that assists schools in paying for internet access or buying other technological improvements. The program, the third-biggest source of federal money for schools, has had its funding capped at about $2.4 billion per year for over 15 years. Now, in accordance with a proposal first made last month by FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, its funding will abruptly rise by about $1.5 billion to support a more ambitious push to put high-speed Internet in every public school.

E-rate is financed through service fees added to Americans’ telephone bills, and they’ll also be footing the bill for this expansion. Fees are expected to rise by about $1.90 per year per phone line.

Expanding Internet access in schools has been a significant educational priority for the Obama administration, whose ConnectEd Initiative aims to give 99 percent of all public school students high-speed Internet by 2017.

The vote was made along party lines, with the three Democratic members of the Commission voting to approve, while the two Republicans dissented. Republican commissioner Ajit Pai has been particularly critical of the proposed expansion, saying during the meeting that it raises taxes on poorer Americans without taking any action to address broader systemic issues with the program.

“While those who can afford to live in Georgetown, Manhattan’s Upper East Side, or Malibu might scoff at the increased taxes, families in middle America are sick of being nickeled and dimed by Washington politicians,” Pai said. Wheeler countered by arguing that about sixteen cents a month was a minimal expense for ensuring American schoolchildren a “21st Century education.”

The education may be 21st-century, but that doesn’t make it better, argues Neal McCluskey, an education analyst for the libertarian Cato Institute, who told The Daily Caller News Foundation that E-Rate’s expansion is unlikely to produce the gains hoped for.

“There is not a whole lot of evidence that having more technology or more bandwidth in schools has positive impact on academic achievement,” McCluskey said.

McCluskey also condemned the FCC for essentially raising taxes without involving Congress.

“You essentially have the Federal Communications Commission, five people, voting for a big tax increase on the public,” without the direct involvement of Congress, McCluskey said.

Unsurprisingly, Democrats and administration officials were more willing to praise the vote. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan released a brief statement lauding the expansion as a “huge step forward” in the effort to pull schools into the digital age.

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