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Obama’s misguided plan to connect schools to the Internet
My new research shows that more Internet access funding doesn’t help students. And almost all U.S. schools are already online.
Even during times of political gridlock, connecting schools to the Internet has always received bipartisan support. Politicians ranging from Bill Clinton to Newt Gingrich have endorsed the concept, and the federal government has funneled billions of dollars annually to boost Internet access for students under a twenty-year-old policy called “E-Rate.”
E-Rate is almost the perfect Washington D.C. program. It hits the hot buttons of education, technology, and good jobs at good wages in one shot and spreads federal monies to vendors and consultants in every corner of the country. And no politician has ever been defeated for public office by touting improved Internet connections at local schools.
But in a large study of students in North Carolina, two colleagues and I recently found that the actual benefits for students—the kids the program is supposed to help—are about zero. In fact, our research found that the E-Rate program marginally hurt student performance rather than helped it.
In the 1990s, boosting computers in the classroom was all the rage on both sides of the aisle. Clinton and his Vice President, Al Gore, gave campaign speeches that touted E-Rate in the 1990s. Gingrich went even bolder, suggesting that the government ensure a laptop computer for each public school student, K-12. In 1996, Congress passed the Telecommunications Act by bipartisan majorities. Two years later, the funds from the E-Rate program began flowing to schools. Since then, over $40 billion has gone to wire schools and libraries to spur broadband adoption.
Under E-Rate, school districts apply to the federal government for subsidies to enhance Internet connections. The funds come in the form of discounts, from 20 percent to 90 percent, on the cost of installations or services. Schools with more students from disadvantaged households receive higher discounts.
At first glance, the program makes sense. Modern data networks can be powerful educational tools, so connecting more students to the Internet would stimulate learning. But in classrooms where students actually log on for their lessons, is there compelling evidence that additional dollars for more and faster broadband will grow youngsters’ brains?
The president believes there is. In 2013, Obama pointed to the school district in Mooresville, North Carolina as an example of how students benefit from broadband expenditures. The Mooresville school district upgraded its computer facilities and purportedly saw a surge in student achievement.The president declared the question decided, and proposed expanding the $2.25 billion E-Rate budget to $4 billion a year. The Federal Communications Commission quickly enacted the plan under authority granted to the agency in 1996.
The reality is that independent academic research has tended to find zero or negative results. Indeed, Obama’s own first-term chief economic advisor, Austan Goolsbee, co-authored a study a decade ago showing that pupil achievement scores in California exhibited no gains with improved classroom computer access. A 2014 study of ninth-graders in Portugal found that those spending more time connected to the Internet had lower learning achievement scores.
To investigate the impact of E-Rate and to focus on the current example proffered by the President, my colleagues (Ben Schwall of Clemson and Scott Wallsten of the Technology Policy Institute) and I studied how broadband subsidies in North Carolina related to learning. Gathering data on all public high schools in the state from 2000-2013, including how much E-Rate funding was sent to schools, we investigated how SAT scores in math and verbal reasoning changed with increased Internet subsidies. Holding other school and socio-demographic factors constant, the changes were small but the finding was statistically significant. Except the relationship was negative. In other words, the more E-Rate funding a school received, the worse its students performed.
Whatever the impact of Internet access on test scores, the fact today is that virtually no schools are left without broadband links. In fact, by 2005, the Department of Education found that virtually every U.S. school had Internet access; by 2008, 98 percent had broadband and 94 percent of classrooms were wired for high-speed connections. That E-Rate was responsible for this increase in connectivity is dubious, but regardless, the task of bringing the Internet to schools seems to be long ago complete.
Nonetheless, the funds have kept flowing, cheered on by school press releases and technology salesmen hitting their quotas. In affluent Montgomery County, Maryland, over ten million federal dollars were budgeted for “Promethean Boards” (aka “Smart Boards”) from 2013 to 2017—despite the fact that the federal rules state that E-Rate is to be used for connections and not for computers or devices.
Numerous evaluations by the Government Accountability Office have cited lax oversight and non-existent program evaluations. Amazingly, ultra-orthodox Jewish schools in New York have collected millions in E-Rate funds despite having no computer access, which would conflict with their strict policy against students’ use of digital media at home or on campus. In reporting on the FBI investigation into the matter, The Forward wrote that the “program has been plagued with fraud over its two-decade existence.”
For years, elementary schools have bragged about third graders doing assignments in Power Point, seemingly preparing 8 year-olds for the workplace of tomorrow. But such programs do not teach the truly useful skill of computer coding, and while computer literacy is probably a positive, the software of 2029 will not likely look just like the Power Point of today. On the flip side, many net resources, like the rightly acclaimed Kahn Academy, do not require ultra-high bandwidth connections, suggesting that pouring extra billions into more advanced networks is a costly diversion.
Perhaps almost as perverse as subsidies that lower student performance is the funding source. The “universal service fund” pays for E-Rate with a 17.9 percent tax on long distance telecommunications. The term may sound odd; “long distance” is an artifact of the past for most Americans. However, international calls over plain old telephone network are still made, mostly by Latin American migrants living in the U.S. The telecommunications levy hits them particularly hard. More affluent households, on the other hand, use Facetime, Skype and other apps that avoid the tax.
A recent “teachable moment” epitomizes the basic challenge in educational technology today. In 2013, the L.A. Unified School District committed $1.3 billion to give an Apple iPad to each of its 640,000 students. The program was a “debacle,” wrote Wired. Kids almost instantly hacked their way out of the firewalls that limited access to inappropriate sites, while customized software proved inoperable. When kids lost or damaged a unit, administrators fumbled for a policy to fix or replace it. Teachers were forced to shelve computer projects, returning to traditional lesson plans. But that retreat became more challenging as many kids were distracted by unlocked iPads costing $768 each.
The best part of the program was that the disaster was so astonishingly quick and thorough that it was suspended after “only” $100 million was squandered.
Here’s a new idea: Suspend the E-Rate program until the theory behind it passes an objective performance test. Using online data sources, we can see if subsidies for broadband improve student understanding. If results mirror our research, and outcomes remain negative, the program should be terminated.
If further evidence quantifies positive impacts, those gains should be compared to different ideas for using $4 billion annually, such as teacher incentives, superior principals, more vouchers, tax credits or charter schools. Only if E-Rate is the best use of money should Congress reinstate the program. If we want our children to learn something important using computers, we should start by showing them that we can, as well.
Thomas Hazlett is H.H. Macaulay Endowed Professor of Economics at Clemson University, where he also directs the Information Economy Project. He formerly served as Chief Economist of the Federal Communications Commission.