As millions of relief dollars designated to assist school reopenings are still sitting untouched nearly a year after Congress passed stimulus legislation, congressional Democrats are seeking to provide $7.6 billion over the next 10 years toward a program that prioritizes the interests of teachers unions and the districts that bow to them over getting students back into classrooms now.
Beginning on page 210 of the massive COVID spending bill, Democrats included a provision to grant more funding for a scandal-filled, already bureaucratically resourced program called E-Rate. In its current state, E-Rate gives schools a discount on telecommunication services to better serve their classrooms. The latest legislation, however, expands E-Rate to provide funding and resources to schools incentivizing virtual learning as a majority of students around the nation approach nearly a year of no or limited in-person learning.
“E-Rate is a program worth fighting for, and that requires serious reform. If the goal is to get kids online right now, we have billions upon billions in unspent federal dollars between the FCC and the Department of Education for that purpose. We should implement those programs while heeding the calls of parents across the country to get schools open for in-person learning,” Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr told The Federalist.
In addition to allocating billions of dollars more to a program and state education agencies that only used approximately $3 billion of their previously designated $68 billion, E-Rate also has a bumpy track record in terms of rollout. As noted in a 2019 Government Accountability Office report, E-Rate often leaves poorer school districts without the ability to “provide wireless access off-premises” for their students, limiting who can access the technology and where they can get it. The program also provides no discounts or benefits for students and their families who need WiFi, only offering those benefits to science-denying school districts, most of which have chosen to stay closed for almost a year, a catch critics see as problematic.
“It’s not the most efficient way to help students and families,” Nathan Leamer, a former policy adviser to the now-departed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, told The Federalist. “There are ways that we could tie this to our students and we should be pursuing those options and, you know … they already received billions of dollars. How is how they allocate it different than the FCC? How are they working together to allocate this money appropriately to those in need, instead of the institutions who have more flexibility to use it as they see fit nicely, as students and family parents see fit?”
Some such as Leamer say there are faster solutions that could better assist students and their families in their efforts to return to classroom learning, but Democrats are choosing to include provisions that benefit certain interest groups instead. Just last week, the FCC enacted the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program meant to grant households and students in need of internet and technology services, such as computers or tablets, discounts so they can keep up with any remote learning requirements school districts might impose.
“No one should underestimate the time and agency resources it takes to stand up new connectivity programs. Congress directed us in December to create an emergency connectivity fund, and we just announced that we hope to open that fund up in the next 60 days. That is why leveraging these existing programs would be a faster and more effective way to help students in the near term,” Carr explained.
“Unlike E-Rate, the EBB program puts federal dollars directly towards the internet bills of families with children, not to school systems, and it lets those families choose the services that best meet their needs, rather than having school administrators make those purchasing decisions for them,” Carr added. “We should ensure that federal dollars follow the students, not the schools, as they would through E-Rate.”