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Train kids better for digital-age jobs

Whether they live in big cities or small towns, America’s students should have access to next-generation technologies like broadband. That’s why we have a plan to bring high-speed Internet access to classrooms across Illinois and the United States. Our cornerstones are simple: Cut red tape and empower local schools.

Eighteen years ago, Congress established what is known as “E-Rate,” the nation’s largest education technology program. It distributes more than $2 billion to schools and libraries each year to purchase communications services. Although E-Rate has had its share of successes, it isn’t giving students and parents enough bang for the buck.

The program is stuck in a bog of bureaucracy. Officially, a school is eligible for an unlimited amount of money. So to make sure funds are spent only on federal priorities, the Federal Communications Commission has created a labyrinth of rules, regulations and paperwork that schools must navigate. The basic application spans 17 pages. But if a school wants something that the federal government doesn’t deem a priority — for example, connecting a classroom to wi-fi — then several more forms and approvals are required. One misstep anywhere along the way will cause a school’s E-Rate funding to be delayed or denied.

Unsurprisingly, the system doesn’t work smoothly. The average wait time for applications to connect classrooms is 389 days. And sometimes it takes years for the FCC to process applications and distribute funding for a given school year. In fact, it takes so long for some schools to get their funding for a particular year that the students who were in grade school at the start of the application may be graduating from high school before that funding is ever awarded.

On top of this, the FCC has an appeals backlog stretching back a decade. Last month, for example, the FCC decided four appeals involving funding set aside in 2006. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The FCC still hasn’t spent some funding reserved for 1997 and has nearly $5 billion sitting in an E-Rate account waiting to meet the critical communications needs of students.

Faced with the prospect of a tortuous, multiyear funding process, many small and rural schools have opted out of the program. Many simply don’t have the expertise or time needed to apply for E-Rate funding. Schools that do apply often feel compelled to rely (and spend money) on outside consultants to manage the process for them.

This overly complex and unfair system is unacceptable, and our students deserve better. That’s why we need a student-centered approach, rather than one focused on bureaucracy.

It should be local schools, not Washington, that decide what improvements make the most sense for our schools. By empowering schools to make the decisions about what upgrades most benefit them and setting a budget for each school and library, we can dramatically reduce red tape to ensure the necessary resources go directly to schools.

In addition, whether the school’s priorities are wiring classrooms or purchasing wi-fi routers, the basic application should be no longer than one page. Simplifying the application will create a process that is easy enough for every school and library in America to navigate, reducing or even eliminating the need to retain E-Rate consultants.

To prepare our children for digital-age jobs, we need to get them online today. Our students’ futures are too important to let this opportunity for far-reaching reform slip from our grasp.

A student-centered E-Rate program would give kids in small towns a better chance to compete with those growing up in big cities. Real reform would help children in Illinois and throughout small-town America see a brighter tomorrow — and we stand ready to ensure that E-Rate lives up to that promise.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Ajit Pai is a member of the Federal Communications Commission.

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