The White House’s announcement last week of the ConnectEd initiative—President Obama’s urging of the FCC to overhaul the E-Rate program—is only the first step in what must be a larger, committed effort to fully fund technology in our nation’s schools and libraries, the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) tells SLJ
While ISTE applauds Obama for ConnectEd, which sets a goal of broadband access for nearly all U.S. students within the next five years, the organization stresses the same issue raised by the American Library Assocation: that E-Rate has been woefully underfunded since its inception.
ISTE also notes that the discrepancy between what schools and libraries need and what can be funded with E-Rate’s current budget has only grown wider over the years as technology has advanced.
“We forget that it was only in 2010 that the iPad has burst onto the scene. Our view of technology has shifted as it has become more ubiquitous in our lives, so access is critically important. Times have changed. Technology has changed,” ISTE CEO Brian Lewis says. “The issue of not only equity of access but efficiency of access and speed of access and functionality of access—these issues have evolved over the years, so the notion of what the president is doing makes sense.”
However, “the second half of the conversation is the resources,” Lewis says.
For 2013, school and libraries have requested nearly $5 billion from the E-Rate program—although the available funds in the program total only about half of that amount.
“If we’re going to set expectations on schools, and we recognize that educational technology is there to support learning, and we believe that there needs to be equity of access to high-speed internet, and we know that’s a critical tool…how do we as a society [do this],” Lewis says, “but by the same token…turn a blind eye to the $2.5 billion dollar demand that exceeds resources currently?”
Ultimately, it’s about political will, and that begins with the president, Lewis says, dismissing recent criticisms that Obama’s initiative does not go far enough because it lacks specific legislative directives for funding. “I think what the president is trying to do is…to push this issue, to shine a light on it, to share best practices, and call attention to the broader [concerns],” Lewis explains. “He can’t by the stroke of a pen raise the money to meet that $2.5-billion-dollar gap, but he’s doing all he can to call attention to the need in the way that he has authority [to do].”
The duty is now on others, Lewis says, to fully commit to equipping students with what they need at the same time they are demanding that schools be held accountable for meeting learning objectives. “It’s like telling a student, ‘we want you to go get an “A” on this test, but we’re not going to provide you with any resource materials, electronic or otherwise, to help you prepare for that test.’ It’s the same thing.”
Still, Lewis says ISTE is mindful of E-Rates many successes since the program was introduced in 1996. “The good news has been what E-Rate has accomplished over the years, in terms of providing equitable opportunities for each and every student,” he says.
Adds Lewis, “One of the things we know is that every district is different, and every formula needs to be tweaked—whether that’s the formula for pedagogy or technology or budgeting—and what’s great about what the president is doing is the administration is shining a spotlight on best practices where it is working. What can we learn from where it’s working?”
ISTE also remains hopeful of what’s to come, and plans to continue to work with the White House, the FCC, and other educational stakeholders in helping to guide the conversation at the same time it advocates for increased support in funding, Lewis says.
“It’s a combination,” Lewis says. “We want to do what the president is suggesting and support the development and promulgation of sharing of best practices and that’s great. That’s a lot of what ISTE is philosophically about—creating a space and time, virtual and real, where people share best practices. And that’s critical. But the other piece is, always, the issue of resources.
Adds Lewis, “We have to take advantage of the fact that the president made a very conscious choice to focus his attention on this issue that we all care about. Our job now is to take that opportunity and continue to work it, continue to push it, and argue successfully for the financial piece that’s necessary to finish this puzzle.”
Thus, defining the issue’s new “leverage points” in the face of ConnectEd is the organization’s next step, Lewis says, adding, “we’re still having that conversation.”
In the meantime, ISTE will be broaching the issue in full force at its annual conference and expo in San Antonio later this month, when FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and Richard Culatta, acting director of the Office of Educational Technology for the Department of Education, will both be featured speakers. ISTE is also hosting a 12-minute “speed panel” on E-Rate, plus a sponsored “Advocacy Lounge” where attendees can write to their representatives, sign White House petitions, and learn more about standing up for students’ access to resources.