FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai Pushes for a “Student-Centered” E-Rate Program

Earlier today, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai gave a speech at the American Enterprise Institute on the E-Rate program, a Universal Service Fund subsidy for affordable high-speed broadband and new technology to public schools and libraries. Rather than merely expanding the program like many have proposed (some to the tune of $9 billion!), Pai proposes reforming E-Rate to make it student-centered, preventing any further misspending scandals and promoting fiscal responsibility. Better yet, this reform would give students over $1 billion in additional funding without costing taxpayers an extra penny.
The E-Rate service has proven to be a great, albeit very flawed, program. Pai reported that in its first decade of existence, the number of schools with Internet connection jumped from 27% to 94%. However, despite this benefit, the program has veered from its intended path. As Pai put it, “Instead of a student-centered E-Rate program, we now have one too heavily focused on bureaucracy.” Instead of connecting individual classrooms to the Internet, the money has been spent on bus garages, athletic facilities, and computer equipment that ends up sitting in storage, unused.
Pai addressed five main problems with the current E-Rate system: sometimes a decade-long delay for funding, the massive amount of paperwork, the need for outsourcing to consultants, misplaced funding priorities (there’s over $5 billion in unspent taxpayer money sitting in the E-Rate account right now!), and poor incentives that favor those who know how to play the system rather than those who genuinely need help.
His proposed solution? A simple, four-step, student-centered fix. The first step would be to revise the distribution of E-Rate funds so that a certain amount would be given to a school per student, with that amount contingent on poverty levels and rural locations. So, these funds would follow students throughout school. Next, spending would be focused on the areas that need it most—connecting individual classrooms to the Internet, rather than focusing on voice services. Third, the E-Rate application process would be simplified down to a one-form initial application and, later on, another one-form report. Finally, Pai proposed a solution to increase transparency and accountability: greater disclosure of how funds are spent, and an accompanying website that allows anyone to access this information.
With more careful spending, greater transparency, and replacing complexity with simplicity, this E-Rate reform is poised to bring far more benefits than mere expansion, something which would only encourage further scandals and misused funds. Why would a $9 billion expansion even be needed in the first place if $5 billion is currently sitting in the E-Rate account, waiting to be used?
We can only hope the same will be echoed during Wednesday’s Senate Commerce Committee Hearing on the E-Rate program. Check in with Digital Liberty again tomorrow for the latest updates.