As sons of rural Kansas, we are committed to ensuring that children who grow up in the Sunflower State receive the same educational opportunities as students anywhere in America. One of the tools for making certain rural students receive a 21st Century education is broadband Internet access. Broadband can be the great equalizer; with an Internet connection, where you live doesn’t determine what information and resources you can access.
The good news is Congress recognized the importance of offering all students access to technology when it directed the Federal Communications Commission to create the E-Rate program nearly 20 years ago. Today, that program distributes more than $2 billion every year to help schools and libraries connect to the Internet, and every American who has phone service contributes to the E-Rate fund through charges on his or her monthly bill.
The bad news is this federal program meant to close the digital divide is actually making it worse for rural schools. A few commonsense reforms, including simplifying the application process and providing certainty to schools, could fix that.
Schools in rural areas routinely get less funding-per-student than those in wealthier, urban areas. For example, E-Rate distributes to students in Washington, D.C., roughly three times the amount that Kansas students receive – even though our nation’s capital has a much larger tax base and broadband is cheaper to deploy there than in rural Kansas. Indeed, small Kansas towns from Colby to Coffeyville, and Elkhart to Seneca, tend to get less money than large school districts with more resources. These disparities undermine E-Rate’s core mission of giving rural schools the same technological tools as their urban and suburban counterparts.
One reason for this unfair distribution of funding is the complex E-Rate application process. To apply for E-Rate funds, schools must complete a seven-step process with six application forms spanning 17 pages – just for basic service. If a school wants to invest in a technology the federal government does not consider a priority, additional paperwork is required. Moreover, schools are required to sign service contracts months before the school year begins, and possibly years before the school knows if E-Rate funding will even be available to offset the cost of those services.
All of this means that it is expensive and burdensome to apply, forcing some schools to divert money away from the classroom in order to hire consultants to help them navigate the process. Other schools just give up entirely because they just don’t have the budget to hire consultants, accountants or lawyers. And even those who hire help can still make mistakes.
In all, administrative delays and missteps result in E-Rate collecting about $400 million more from American consumers each year than it spends – money that sits in a bank account instead of going to help out schools in need.
On top of the complicated application process, E-Rate doesn’t give schools a budget. That means urban schools at the front of the line often get as much money as they want while many rural schools at the back of the line must make do with what is left. The result is some schools using E-Rate to subsidize Blackberries for administrators while other schools can’t even get funding for classroom Wi-Fi. That’s not right.
To fulfill E-Rate’s promise to all of our students, we must cut the bureaucracy and refocus the program on our children’s needs. We must create a student-centered E-Rate program.
Let’s start by streamlining the process and cutting the initial application down to one page. All schools should be able to apply on their own without hiring a consultant. And, let’s speed up the funding process. Schools need certainty that E-Rate funding will be there before – not after – they sign service contracts. They shouldn’t have to wait months for paperwork to wend its way through a large bureaucracy.
Next, let’s fix the inequities in distributing E-Rate funds. If we allocate E-Rate’s budget on a per-student basis across every school in America on day one, then every school board, every teacher, and every parent will know just how much money is available. If the money follows the student – with higher amounts for schools in rural or low-income areas – we can better give schools the resources they need to connect the classroom. Indeed, a per-student funding model would encourage all schools to be fiscally responsible while giving a funding boost to the rural schools that need it most.
Helping our students prepare for the digital economy is necessary in order for America to compete in the 21st Century; to do that, we need real reform of E-Rate. With a student-centered E-Rate program that is simple and certain, we can give all Americans – including those in rural areas – the chance to compete with the rest of the world for next-generation jobs. It’s time for kids in rural Kansas, too, to share in the bounty of broadband.
Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS) is a member of the United States Senate. Commissioner Ajit Pai is a member of the Federal Communications Commission. This column originally appeared in the Wichita Eagle.