E-Rate Is Another Failed Big Government Program, Why Not Double Down?



Among the silver bullets loaded into the education chamber has been, for many years, Internet access for schools. In the mid-1990s federal officials including President Bill Clinton, Internet inventor Al Gore, and Cool-Idea Guy Newt Gingrich all touted the educational benefits that were certain to flow from connecting every classroom to the worldwide web. This bipartisan enthusiasm led to the E-Rate program, enacted in 1996 as part of the Telecommunications Act. Paid for with a tax on long-distance telephone service, E-Rate provides subsidies for schools to help them access broadband service.

Twenty years and $40 billion later, how’s that working out? According to a recent study from Clemson University (Go Tigers!) and the Technology Policy Institute, not particularly well. The researchers analyzed data from North Carolina schools and found that the educational benefits of increasing Internet connections are approximately zero. In fact, there’s a small but statistically significant decrease in student achievement in schools that have used E-Rate funds to improve broadband access.

This E-Rate study was prompted by President Obama’s 2013 citation of the Mooresville, NC, school district as a success story – when computer facilities were upgraded, according to the President, student achievement soared. He thus proposed expanding the E-Rate budget from $2.25 billion to $4 billion a year. So the researchers gathered data from all N.C. public schools from 2000 to 2013 and analyzed if and how SAT scores in math and verbal reasoning changed as schools received E-Rate funding. They discovered, as researcher Dr. Thomas Hazlett reported, that “the more E-Rate funding a school received, the worse its students performed.”

According to Hazlett, this finding is consistent with previous studies. One was conducted by former Obama administration chief economic adviser Austan Goolsbee (before his Obama gig) and found no student-achievement gains in California schools with improved computer access. Another, from Portugal, found that the more time 9th-graders spent on the Internet in school, the lower their achievement scores.

The research is starting to pile up. Last year the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development released a report demonstrating that using computers in the classroom actually harms student achievement on reading and math tests. On the higher-education front, a study of West Point economics students showed similar results. A study from Canada reports that 67 percent of teachers think digital devices in the classroom are a distraction from learning. More and more teachers are beginning to ban computers and other devices completely.

Despite these studies, despite the fact that the E-Rate tax falls most heavily on immigrants telephoning home (otherwise, long-distance service is dying out), and despite General Accountability Office findings of fraud in the program, E-Rate seems destined to continue. In fact, Obama’s ConnectEd program seeks to expand E-Rate to cover other computer-related costs in schools. Moreover, the new fed-ed bill (the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA) showers money on school-technology programs through, for example, “Student Support and Academic Enhancement” grants.

Is this because there’s so much money to be made from ever-increasing classroom technology, so that the ed-tech lobbyists swarm around the DC policy-makers and fill their heads with evidence-free visions of transformed education? This is certainly part of it. But a more disturbing part is that (as we’ve written) the goal of mapping and perhaps reshaping a child’s mind can’t be accomplished if the child is reading books and writing on paper. If he’s not connected to technology, it’s much harder to leverage pseudo-psychoanalysis and Pavlovian training to create a good little worker with the government-approved mindsets. Heaven forbid that schools would have to fall back on genuine education.

As Ronald Reagan once said, the closest thing to eternal life on earth is a government program. When a program such as E-Rate not only generates mega-profits but also provides the means for influential but creepy techno-progressives to invade students’ most personal privacy, it probably is truly immortal. Parents should not accept the continuance of a program that assaults both their children and their wallets.

Jane Robbins is an attorney and a senior fellow with the American Principles Project.

Jane Robbins

Jane Robbins is an attorney and senior fellow with the American Principles Project.

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