Public schools in Calhoun County could receive funding to go toward Internet connectivity and new technology for students through reorganization of a federal program announced Tuesday.
The Federal Communications Commission discussed details of the plan in a press conference Tuesday. The modernization plan of the FCC’s E-rate program, first proposed earlier this year, would increase funding to provide Wi-Fi access to all school systems across the nation. E-rate started in 1997 with the goal of providing phone service and dial-up network connectivity in schools.
“It’s no exaggeration to say that the E-rate program has been the driving force behind connecting all schools and libraries to the Internet,” said Jon Wilkins, acting managing director of the FCC. “However, the program was only able to support Wi-Fi connectivity in fewer than 5 percent of schools and 1 percent of libraries in the past year.”
The proposal listed three overall goals for the new plan: close the Wi-Fi gap, make the overall program rules fair to ensure all schools get funding, and maximize existing funds to make every dollar go further. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed to pledge $1 billion to connect students to Wi-Fi nationwide. The $1 billion pledge, as proposed, will be available for the 2015 school year. Under the plan, the E-rate program will provide another $1 billion in funding in the 2016 school year. The current E-rate funding will be reorganized to use the money more efficiently, according to a press release from the FCC. The reform will use E-rate money originally spent on technology such as pagers and dial-up phone service.
“With the reforms, we expect $34 million more from E-rate to Alabama schools over the next five years,” said Mark Wigfield, a media consultant with the FCC. “To put that into perspective, E-rate would be projected to invest $92.3 million in Wi-Fi over the next five years, compared to $57.9 million in the last five years.”
According to Wigfield, the FCC predicts the program would allow another 477,000 Alabama students to have access to Wi-Fi, bringing the state’s total to 795,000 students. Funding is allotted in waves based on the poverty levels of the school systems. Through the former plan, systems with higher rates of poverty receive funding first, often leaving school systems in the middle with little to no funding. The new modernization plan will provide more money for all schools in need, according to Wigfield.
“We have to adapt with technological advances, though,” said Jon Paul Campbell, superintendent of Jacksonville City schools. “I recently heard someone say that the digital divide between the haves and the have-nots should be considered the greatest civil rights issue of our time.”
Campbell said he hoped the new plan would help close the divide, although in his opinion, Alabama’s level of connectivity in schools was pretty good already. Through funding from the city of Jacksonville, Campbell said the school system supplied students with 1,500 devices this year, and the system is now operating on a structure in which each student is paired with his or her own device. Through the funding, which was allocated from a city sales tax, the school system improved its Wi-Fi coverage as well.
“Personal devices for the students are great, but if you don’t have the connectivity and infrastructure to support it, the devices don’t serve a purpose,” Campbell said.
While Jacksonville’s school district is relatively well-set for Wi-Fi funding, Campbell is optimistic about the E-rate modernization plan.
“Technological advances will continue to happen,” Campbell said. “In five years, we could need an entirely new system to keep connectivity throughout the schools.”
Calhoun County Schools recently completed revamping the infrastructure and installing Wi-Fi throughout its campuses. Jenel Travis, Calhoun County’s technology director, said the system is usually in one of the later waves of funding because of its number of students who receive free or reduced-price lunches, often used as a measure of poverty. Travis said she is interested to see how the funds are divided up and what resources are made available through the new plan.
“The issue with Alabama is that, while there are needs in most of the schools, the needs are varied and at all levels of advancement,” Travis said.
Calhoun County Schools has so far not purchased computers or other devices to issue to each student. Travis said she expects that is where the school system will use the money, if it receives it.
While he is in agreement that the plan needs to be restructured, Piedmont City Schools Superintendent Matt Akin said he is hesitant to fully support the plan until the details are hammered out.
“I don’t mean to sound negative, but they need to reorganize the way the funding is dispersed,” Akin said.
According to Akin, the American Association of School Administrators opposes the changes. The association fears the way the money would be handed out would hurt, rather than help, rural schools, Akin said.
“Some of these rural schools, like our elementary school, are older than others,” Akin said. “Our fear is that the money will go to newer schools that can better support the technology first before it will go to older schools that would need more work on the infrastructure to support full connectivity.”
During the press conference Tuesday, Wilkin said the FCC’s data is projecting a 75 percent increase in funding for rural school systems.
“Another thing we need to work on, and I realize it will be difficult, is home access for these students,” Akin said. “A lot of kids don’t have the connectivity they need at home to do their work.”
Attempts to contact Anniston City School officials for this story were unsuccessful.
The FCC will meet for an open forum on July 11 to discuss and vote on the plan.
Staff Writer Elizabeth Manning: 256-235-3550. On Twitter @emanning_Star.