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Teachers Give Failing Grade to Obama's Push for Tech in Schools

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, right, visits a math classroom at Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) in Brooklyn, New York.

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, right, visits a math classroom at Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) in Brooklyn, New York. // Charles Dharapak/AP

Teachers are unimpressed with the Obama administration's plan to upgrade technology in schools.

Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association, said he is "beyond frustrated" with a plan announced Friday by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler.

"We feel the chairman is missing the opportunity to seize the moment and truly address the items that will bring broadband to the communities who need it the most," the head of the nation's largest teachers union said in a statement. "This failure will have a negative impact on students and educators, especially in urban, rural, and low-density populated areas."

Real reform would require the administration to spend more money on the initiative, according to Van Roekel and other education advocates.

President Obama announced a plan last year to bring high-speed Internet to 99 percent of U.S. students within five years. With Congress blocking nearly all of Obama's domestic initiatives, the issue is one of the few areas where Obama can make progress without congressional approval.

The plan hinges on the FCC overhauling "E-Rate," a fund that has subsidized Internet access in schools and libraries for nearly 20 years. Money for the fund comes from fees on monthly phone bills. 

Under the plan the FCC unveiled Friday, the agency will begin spending $1 billion every year to pay for Wi-Fi access in schools. In a blog post, Wheeler argued that Wi-Fi is a cost-effective way to ensure that students can use tablets and digital textbooks. The agency is set to vote on the plan next month.  

But the proposal would not increase the overall size of the E-Rate program, which provides about $2.4 billion to schools and libraries annually. Instead, for the first two years, the agency will draw from a pot of reserve money it rolled over from previous years. The FCC also plans to squeeze out additional funds by making the program more efficient and by cutting funding for outdated technologies like pagers and voice mail.

But education groups are skeptical the FCC can upgrade the program without spending more money.

"We believe any effort to modernize the E-Rate program must include increasing the E-Rate funding cap," a coalition of education groups including NEA, the School Superintendents Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National PTA wrote in a letter to the FCC. "We cannot wait any longer to address the critical need for additional, sustained E-Rate funding."

The groups also expressed concern about a new formula for distributing some funds based on the number of students in schools. The FCC should focus on the needs of schools, the groups argued.  

An FCC official emphasized that the agency has not ruled out increasing the overall size of the program if it's necessary to meet the president's goals. The current proposal may only be a first step, the official said.

Matt Lehrich, a White House spokesman, said the White House has not seen the details of the FCC's proposal but that officials appreciate Wheeler's commitment to the president's goal of expanding school Internet access.

"At the same time, we recognize there is more work to be done and we are committed to doing everything it takes—not only when it comes to wires and wireless, but also support for teachers and access to individualized digital learning from kindergarten to the 12th grade," Lehrich said.

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