Feds May Raise Phone Taxes to Fund Common Core Test-Taking

Published July 13, 2013

The Obama administration may raise taxes on everyone’s phone lines by about $5 per year to increase K-12 tech subsidies because most schools cannot administer the computerized Common Core tests coming out in 2015.

President Obama announced the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will likely overhaul the schools and libraries universal service support program, commonly known as E-Rate. He also asked the U.S. Department of Education to use federal funding to give teachers more training in using technology.

Within the next month, telecom observers expect the FCC to publicly propose new rules in an extensive document typical of federal regulation-making, said Douglas Levin, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association.

“It will probably include program reforms,” Levin said. Although Congress oversees the FCC, administration officials told Education Week they believe the agency can change the program without congressional approval.

Established in 1996, E-Rate charges telecommunication companies for long-distance service, including cell lines, and uses the money to subsidize, among other things, school requests for phone lines, broadband Internet, and internal networks. On a conference call with reporters, Obama administration officials estimated the E-rate tax increase at $5 per phone line per year.

Inadequate Infrastructure, Funding
The nonprofit Education Superhighway has sampled K-12 schools’ connectivity levels and bandwidth speed nationwide through 350,000 tests in 18 states, for a representative sample of 15 percent of U.S. schools.

Their research shows approximately 59 percent of schools have enough bandwidth to administer basic computer tests, but only 23 percent have enough bandwidth to handle online tests and textbooks.

Even fewer will have sufficient bandwidth for the tests by 2017 based on projected growth of use. No Common Core tests will be available offline starting in 2017-2018.

“The networks were all built to handle one-tenth of the demand that they’re [being] asked to be able to handle,” Marwell said. “That creates issues, and schools are going to have to catch up. We’re talking about a world where the network is going to be mission-critical.… If computers and networks stop working, learning will stop.”

Some schools have trouble connecting to the Internet, and others have poor WiFi infrastructure, Marwell said.

Computer use in K-12 schools has grown from about 1.5 million users in the ’90s to a need to reach all 55 million in the sector today, Marwell said.

“E-Rate today provides funding to get bandwidth to the school door, but schools can’t rely on E-Rate to fund the LAN and WiFi equipment they need to get that bandwidth to the classroom,” Marwell said. “That is one of the fundamental reasons that E-Rate needs to be modernized.”

Huge Appetite for Funds
The program covers four categories: phone and Wide Area Networks, Internet access, internal connections, and basic maintenance.

The first two services are considered priority one and the others priority two. Priority one services are financed first for the poorest schools that apply. They receive up to a 90 percent discount.

“Since the beginning of the program, there have been more demands for funding than the program has,” Marwell noted.

All priority one requests must be filled before any priority two requests can be considered. This past year, priority one requests exceeded the program’s $2.33 billion annual budget. Total requests this year were nearly $5 billion.

“This means no priority two requests will get funded, except for the fact that there is rollover funding, money allocated in the past years that districts have not spent,” Marwell said.

Reforming Infrastructure, Processes
The cost of updating the program may delay action, Levin said.

“Everyone expects there will be some component of an expansion of dollars,” Levin said. “What’s not known at this point is whether this will be permanent or temporary. It may be there will be a shifting of resources within the universal service programs, reprioritization, or there may be new collections.”

More than a quarter of the money E-rate gave schools from 1998 to 2006, or $5 billion, was not disbursed on schedule, and the program does not evaluate performance, a 2009 Government Accountability Office study found. The report also noted the program is so complicated many districts choose not to apply, and many others pay consultants for advice on their applications.

In June, acting FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn recommended increasing cost-effectiveness when funding, strengthening oversight, increasing dependence on data in decision-making, and drawing more heavily on local public and private officials, organizations, and businesses.

“To ensure a robust future for our children, we must equip them with the necessary tools to compete and flourish in an increasingly global and high tech economy,” Mignon said in a June statement.

The FCC’s plan may be detailed or intentionally vague, hoping to work out more details through the public comment period, Levin said.

“Some think this process will happen quickly, others think this may be somewhat protracted because the conversations about new money, whether it’s permanent or temporary, are going to get complicated, and certainly the industries who are involved in this will lobby on it,” Levin said.

E-Rate and Common Core
Although Common Core implementation demonstrates schools’ shortage of technology, the trend for technology-based assessments was well underway before the new standards, Levin said.

“Schools are relying more and more on broadband Internet…for core functions,” Levin said. “We can provide much richer and better resources to kids and teachers,… but it does require an infrastructure.”


Image by Josie Holford.