Benjamin Herold of Education Week has put together a real cracker of a series on the challenges of ensuring school broadband access in rural communities – and how E-rate (pre- and post-modernization) is helping to address the situation. Really good in-depth reporting and happy to see that Evan Marwell at EducationSuperHighway is continuing to shine a light on and advocate for affordable connectivity solutions for schools.

Ensuring Access to Robust Broadband for ALL StudentsThis is a big deal – and while we are wringing our hands over the state of ESEA reauthorization and Secretary Duncan’s legacy – I’d submit yet again my contention that the 2014 modernization of E-rate (not Race to the Top, not SIG, not teacher effectiveness regulations or other accountability schemes, and not pre-K rhetoric) will be the lasting education (EDUCATION, not education technology) legacy of the Obama administration.

Three further thoughts spurred by this terrific piece:

  1. That it costs more to provide robust broadband to rural communities seems to me an incontrovertible fact. While some providers may be charging excessive fees, I would expect costs to provide and maintain broadband services in rural schools to be higher than in more populated areas. While we need to root out price gouging (to which the FCC has been accused – rightfully so – of turning a blind eye), it would be the worst sort of technocratic response by the federal government or even states to demand equal pricing from providers for all schools within (or across) states. We need solutions that build trust in these public-private transactions – and blunt pricing regulation (while tempting) may easily pervert the market in ways that is neither beneficial to schools or telecomm providers over the long term.
  2. President Obama was wrong to set a national goal that falls short of connecting all schools – including all rural schools – to robust broadband. In June of 2013, the President announced his intention to “connect 99 percent of America’s students to the internet through high-speed broadband and high-speed wireless within 5 years.” The message the Administration sent and continues to send here is that the rural issues highlighted in the Education Week piece are simply intractable and that the political will does not exist within the Administration to try to address them. This led the Alliance for Excellent Education (and its partners) – inexplicably – to rally around this goal with the uninspirational ‘99 in 5‘ campaign instead of pushing for universal access. The message to political insiders is and remains crystal clear: we’re going to leave rural schools behind, we know it, and we’re ok with that. We should demand more of our political leaders and from our education advocacy organizations.
  3. Its past due time to revisit the E-rate discount formula, which is the mechanism that allocates funds to schools. During the E-rate modernization process, a number of proposals were advanced – most notably by John Harrington of Funds for Learning – that would reverse the trend to direct the vast majority of E-rate support to the nation’s largest school districts, leaving rural schools with proportionately less support. Much like changing the formula responsible for allocating Title I funds, even the suggestion that formula changes could help us better meet our program goals was highly contentious. Given disparities in pricing (such as those reported on in Education Week), the current E-rate discount matrix [PDF] is unequivocally and demonstrably unfair to rural communities who are facing a double whammy: they have fewer resources at their disposal and they pay higher prices for the same levels of broadband service (see point #1 above). While increased pricing transparency, build-out subsidies, and self-provisioning mechanisms will all help, we won’t be able to fully address the rural school broadband issue until we revisit the structural deficiencies in calculating discount rates.

I hope this piece gets the serious public policy consideration it deserves – and spurs both the White House and the FCC to consider further enhancements to E-rate modernization.