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Rationalizing Those ‘Irrational’ Fears of inBloom

This article first appeared on Points, a Data & Society publication in February 2017

That inBloom might exist as a cautionary tale in the annals of ed-tech is rather remarkable, if for no other reason than ed-tech – at least its manifestation as a current blend of venture capital exuberance, Silicon Valley hype, philanthropic dollars, and ed-reform policy-making – tends to avoid annals. That is to say, ed-tech today has very little sense of its own history. Everything is “new” and “innovative” and “disruptive.” It’s always forward-facing, with barely a glance over its should at the past – at the history of education or the history of technology. No one had ever thought about using computers in the classroom – or so you might glean if you only read the latest marketing about apps and analytics – until this current batch of philanthropists and entrepreneurs and investors and politicians suddenly stumbled upon the idea circa 2010.

Perhaps that very deliberate dismissal of history helped doom inBloom from the start. Those who worked on the initiative seemed to ignore the legacy of the expensive and largely underutilized ARIS (Achievement Reporting and Innovation System) system that had been built for New York City schools, for example, hiring many of ARIS’s staff and soliciting the company in charge of building it, Wireless Generation, to engineer the inBloom product.

While those making sweeping promises about data collection and data analytics wanted to suggest that, thanks to digital technologies, InBloom offered a unique opportunity to glean insights from data from the classroom, many parents and educators likely had a different sense – a deeper history –of what data had already done or undone, of what data could do or undo. They certainly had a different sense of risk.

The compulsion to gather more and more data is hardly new, although certainly new technologies facilitate it, generating more and more data in turn. In 1962, Raymond Callahan published Education and the Cult of Efficiency, tracing to the early twentieth century the eagerness of school leaders to adopt the language and the practices of business management in the hopes that schools might be run more efficiently and more “scientifically.”

There’s something quite compelling about those hopes, it seems, as they underlie much of the push for education reform and education technology in schools still today. Indeed, this belief in efficiency and science helped to justify inBloom, as Data & Society’s new report on the history of the $100 million data infrastructure initiative demonstrates.

That belief is evident in the testimonies from various politicians, administrators, entrepreneurs, and technologists involved in the project. Data collection – facilitated by inBloom – was meant to be “the game-changer,” in the words of the CEO of the Data Quality Campaign, providing a way to “actually use individual student information to guide teaching and learning and to really leverage the power of this information to help teachers tailor learning to every single child in their class. That’s what made inBloom revolutionary.” “The promise was that [inBloom] was supposed to be adaptive differentiated instruction for individual students, based on test results and other data that the states had. InBloom was going to provide different resources based on those results,” according to the superintendent of a New York school district.

But this promise of a data-driven educational “revolution” was – and still is – mostly that: a promise. The claims about “personalized learning” attainable through more data collection and data analysis remain primarily marketing hype. Indeed, “personalized learning” is itself a rather nebulous concept. As Data & Society observed in a 2016 report on the topic,

Description of personalized learning encompass such a broad range of possibilities – from customized interfaces to adaptive tutors, from student-centered classrooms to learning management systems – that expectations run high for their potential to revolutionize learning. Less clear from these descriptions are what personalized learning systems actually offer and whether they improve the learning experiences and outcomes for students.

So while “personalized learning” might be a powerful slogan for the ed-tech industry and its funders, the sweeping claims about its benefits are largely unproven by educational research.

But it sounds like science. With all the requisite high-tech gadgetry and data dashboards, it looks like science. It signifies science, and that signification is, in the end, the justification that inBloom largely relied upon. I’m someone who tried to get the startup to clarify “what inBloom will gather, how long it will store it, and what recourse parents have who want to opt out,” and I remember clearly that there was nevertheless much more hand-waving and hype than there ever was a clear explanation (“scientific” or otherwise) of “how” or “why” it would work.

No surprise then, there was pushback, primarily from parents, educators, and a handful of high profile NYC education activists who opposed InBloom’s data collection, storage, and sharing practices. But as the Data & Society report details, “instead of seeking to build trust at the district level with teachers and parents, many interview participants observed that inBloom and the Gates Foundation responded to what were very emotional concerns with complex technical descriptions or legal defenses.”

This juxtaposition of parents as “emotional” and inBloom and the project’s supporters as “scientific” and “technical” runs throughout the report, which really serves to undermine and belittle the fears of inBloom opponents. (This was also evident in many media reports at the time of inBloom’s demise that tended to describe parents as “hysterical” or that patronized them by contending the issues were “understandably obscure to the average PTA mom.”) The opposition to inBloom is described in the Data & Society report as a “visceral, fervently negative response to student data collection,” for example, while the data collection itself is repeatedly framed in terms of its “great promise.” While the report does point to the failure of inBloom officials to build parents’ trust, many of the interviewees repeatedly dismiss the mistrust as irrational. “The activism about InBloom felt like anti-vaccination activism. Just fear,” said one participant. “I don’t know how else to put it,” said another. “It was not rational.”

But inBloom opponents did have reason – many perfectly rational reasons – for concern. As the report chronicles, there were a number of concurrent events that prompted many people to be highly suspicious of plans for the data infrastructure initiative – its motivations and its security. These included inBloom’s connection to the proponents of the Common Core and other education reform policies; the growing concern about the Gates Foundation’s role in shaping these very policies; Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance; several high profile data breaches, including credit card information of some 70 million Target customers; the role of News Corp’s subsidiary Wireless Generation in building the inBloom infrastructure, coinciding with News Corp’s phone hacking scandal in the UK, as well as its decision to hire Joel Klein, the former NYC schools chancellor who’d commissioned the failed ARIS system, to head News Corp’s new education efforts. As the report notes, “The general atmosphere of data mistrust combined with earlier education reform movements that already characterized educational data as a means of harsh accountability.”

In the face of this long list of concerns, the public’s “low tolerance for uncertainty and risk” surrounding student data is hardly irrational. Indeed, I’d argue it serves as a perfectly reasonable challenge to a technocratic ideology that increasingly argues that “the unreasonable effectiveness of data” will supplant theory and politics and will solve all manner of problems, including the challenge of “improving teaching” and “personalizing learning.” There really isn’t any “proof” that more data collection and analysis will do this – mostly just the insistence that this is “science” and therefore must be “the future.”

History – the history of inBloom, the history of ed-tech more generally – might suggest otherwise.

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Hack Education Weekly News

Education Politics

As if applying for financial aid wasn’t difficult enough already, it appears that the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, which pulls tax information into the FAFSA app, “will be unavailable for several weeks.” Great timing, IRS.

Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Congress, in an effort to limit federal involvement in higher education, has voted to eliminate Obama-era regulations on teacher-preparation programs.”

Via PBS Newshour: “Senate votes to end Obama school accountability rules.”

Via The LA Times: “Trump wants to create a national private school choice program. Here’s how it could work.”

Via NPR: “‘Tax Credit Scholarships,’ Praised By Trump, Turn Profits For Some Donors.”

Via Chalkbeat: “Three months into Tennessee’s first voucher foray, 35 students are enrolled.”

Via NPR: “Trump’s International Policies Could Have Lasting Effects On Higher Ed.”

Via ProPublica: “Meet the Hundreds of Officials Trump Has Quietly Installed Across the Government.” Education Department hires include a venture capitalist, members of the Trump campaign, and a KIPP school founder.

Via Rolling Stone: “Betsy DeVos’ Holy War.”

Via Buzzfeed: “A Surprising Number Of People Say They Have An Opinion About Betsy DeVos In This New Poll.”

An op-ed in Techcrunch by Kadenze co-founder Ajay Kapur: “What Betsy DeVos’ confirmation means for innovation in education.”

The Hechinger Report asks, “What can Betsy DeVos really do?”

Including this news item here as there’s also an “odd” link to Betsy DeVos. Via CNN: “Sources: FBI investigation continues into ‘odd’ computer link between Russian bank and Trump Organization.”

Via eCampus News: “The 2 edtech fields with the most potential under Trump.” (Spoiler alert: “workforce initiatives” and “accountability.” Saved you a click.)

The New York Times on how Trump became “the first Silicon Valley President.”

Via Mashable: “Trump’s favorite techie thinks there should be ‘more open debate’ on global warming.” Trump’s favorite techie is, of course, Peter Thiel.

More about Trump’s immigration policies in a separate section below. And more about Trump and for-profit higher ed policies in the for-profit higher ed section below.

Via The Chicago Tribune: “Chance the Rapper writes $1 million check to CPS as a ‘call to action’.”

“The History of the Future of E-rateby me.

According to the EFF, “A Dangerous California Bill Would Leave Students and Teachers Vulnerable to Intrusive Government Searches.” More on AB 165 from the ACLU, which also opposes the proposed law.

Following up on ProPublica reporting, “Florida to Examine Whether Alternative Charter Schools Underreport Dropouts.”

Via The Register Guard: “The Eugene School Board on Wednesday postponed until March 15 a decision on whether to further restrict information available in student directories, such as a student’s date or place of birth.”

Via Education Week: “The Ohio education department could seek repayment of more than $80 million from nine full-time online schools, based on audits of software-login records that led state officials to determine the schools had overstated their student enrollment.”

Via The Washington Post: “Muslim students tried to meet with a lawmaker. They were first asked: ‘Do you beat your wife?’” The lawmaker in question: Oklahoma State Representative John Bennett.

Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “177 Private Colleges Fail Education Dept.’s Financial-Responsibility Test.”

Via Teen Vogue: “Virginia and North Carolina Schools to Close on ‘A Day Without a Woman’.”

Via The New Inquiry: “A Women’s Strike Syllabus.”

Immigration and Education

Trump has issued an update to his Muslim ban. Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “New Travel Ban Still Sows Chaos and Confusion.”

Via Inside Higher Ed: “U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced that it is temporarily suspending premium processing of H–1B skilled worker visa applications for up to six months, beginning on April 3.”

Via The New York Times: “A Rush for Birth Certificates, as Immigrants Try to Hold Families Together.”

Also via The New York Times: “Educators Prepare for Immigration Agents at the Schoolhouse.”

Via NPR Code Switch: “Teachers, Parents Struggle To Comfort Children Of Color Fearful Of Targeted Raids.”

Via The Washington Post: “A U.S. citizen is denied college aid – because of her mother’s immigration status.”

Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Republican State Lawmakers Seek to Ban ‘Sanctuary’ Campuses.” That is, legislators in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, and Texas.

Education in the Courts

The US Supreme Court will not hear a case regarding a trans high school student’s bathroom options at his high school. The case now goes back to the 4th Circuit Court. That student, the incredible Gavin Grimm wrote an op-ed in The New York Times: “The Fight for Transgender Rights Is Bigger Than Me.”

Via The New York Times: “Trump University Lawsuits May Not Be Closed After All.”

Via the BBC: “Facebook Reports BBC to Police Over Investigation Into Child Sex Images.” More on this story and concerns about how Facebook moderates content via Techcrunch.

Testing, Testing…

Via Inside Higher Ed: “Harvard Law School announced Wednesday that it will start an experiment in which it will accept the Graduate Record Examination for admissions, not just the traditionally required Law School Admission Test.”

Via The Denver Post: “Colorado juniors face new, revamped college exam in SAT after state dumps rival ACT.”

Via The Washington Post: “ School offers ‘incentives’ to get kids to take Common Core standardized test.”

Via Chalkbeat: “Data shows Indiana students are taking AP exams, but half aren’t passing them.”

The “New” For-Profit Higher Ed

Tressie McMillan Cottom on The Daily Show. Tressie McMillan Cottom’s new book on for-profit higher ed reviewed by The New York Times.

Via Inside Higher Ed: “The Dream Center Foundation, a religious missionary organization based in Los Angeles, plans to buy EDMC, a struggling for-profit chain that enrolls 65,000 students. The resulting nonprofit college group will be secular.” “I Honestly Don’t Get This,” “Dean Dad” Matt Reed writes in response.

Via The Wall Street Journal: “Trump Administration Delays Enforcement of Obama-Era Rules on For-Profit Colleges.” The “gainful employment” rules, that is.

Via ProPublica: “These For-Profit Schools Are ‘Like a Prison’.” The schools are run by Camelot Education.

More on the for-profit “school” Trump University in the courts section above. More on HR changes at UofP in the HR section below.

Online Education and the Once and Future “MOOC”

An op-ed in Forbes by University Ventures’ Ryan Craig: “Make Online Education Great (For The First Time).”

Via The Financial Times: “Coursera chief on the future of online learning and the Trump era.”

New Nanodegrees from Udacity: Digital Marketing and Robotics.

More on the politics of online education in the politics section above.

Meanwhile on Campus…

The Atlantic profiles “The Violent Fight for Higher Education” in South Africa.

Via The Washington Post: “‘Unprecedented effort’ by ‘white supremacists’ to recruit and target college students, group claims.”

Speaking of which, so many “takes” this week about protests at a talk by Charles Murray at Middlebury College.

Via The Mercury News: “A conservative student organization, fighting for a toe-hold of official recognition in the liberal Bay Area, scored a victory at Santa Clara University where a vice provost overturned a student senate decision and granted a charter to Turning Point USA.”

Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Here’s a Roundup of the Latest Campus-Climate Incidents Early in the Trump Presidency.”

Via The New York Times: “Campus Backlash After Leaders of Black Colleges Meet With Trump.”

“Starting March 15, the university will begin removing more than 20,000 video and audio lectures from public view as a result of a Justice Department accessibility order,” reports Inside Higher Ed. That’s UC Berkeley. David Kernohan responds. (Here’s a story I wrote a couple of years ago about the history of webcasting at Berkeley.)

Via The LA Times: “Inside Celerity charter school network, questionable spending and potential conflicts of interest abound.”

Via CBC News: “Ottawa teacher sent home after cutting hair of 7-year-old boy with autism.”

Via The New York Times: “College Student Suffers Severe Reaction After Hazing Involving Peanut Butter.”

Via The Guardian: “Sexual harassment ‘at epidemic levels’ in UK universities.”

Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Northwestern U. Is Accused of Violating Academic Freedom.”

Via The Mercury News: “University of California proposes first enrollment cap on out-of-state students.”

Via The New York Times: “Years of Ethics Charges, but Star Cancer Researcher Gets a Pass.” The researcher in question, Carlo Croce from Ohio State University.

Go, School Sports Team!

“Why Sports and Elite Academics Do Not Mix” according to The Atlantic’s Jonathan R. Cole.

Via Inside Higher Ed: “In December, an association representing the country’s top athletics directors created a political action committee. It joins the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s own lobbying efforts, which have more than doubled in the past five years.”

From the HR Department

“Head of Savannah College of Art and Design was the top-paid college leader in 2014,” says The Wall Street Journal. She made $9.6 million.

Timothy Slottow, the president of the University of Phoenix, will step down.

Via GeekWire: “Amazon Education GM leaves; company says it ‘remains committed’ to K–12 technology.” That’s Rohit Agarwal, founder of TenMarks, a math startup that Amazon acquired in 2013.

Via The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss: “Head of DeVos-founded group resigns after saying he wanted to ‘shake’ an official ‘like I like to shake my wife’.” That’s the Great Lakes Education Project and executive director Gary Naeyaert.

Via Inside Higher Ed: “A National Labor Relations Board office rejected Columbia University‘s objections to a recent graduate employee union election Monday, recommending that United Auto Workers be certified as the students’ collective bargaining representative.”

“Graduate student employees at Duke University on Tuesday withdrew their petition to form a union affiliated with Service Employees International Union,” Inside Higher Ed reports.

Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “President of Morehouse College Has Not Been Ousted, It Says.”

The Business of Job Training

An op-ed in Techcrunch by University Ventures’ Ryan Craig: “Blame bad applicant tracking for the soft skills shortage at your company.”

Contests

Via Deadspin: “Five-Year-Old Set To Become Youngest-Ever Contestant At National Spelling Bee.”

This Week in Betteridge’s Law of Headlines

Via Education Dive: “Can this Montessori’s AltSchool partnership help scale the model?”

(Reminder: according to Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”)

Upgrades and Downgrades

Remember the Thiel Fellows? Here’s a puff piece from Business Insider on what “some of the most successful” ones are up to these days.

Via The Outline: “Google’s featured snippets are worse than fake news.”

“How ‘News Literacy’ Gets the Web Wrong” by Mike Caulfield.

Via The Guardian: “Essays for sale: the booming online industry in writing academic work to order.”

John Deasy, former LAUSD Superintendent, is heading a new education publication, The Line – it has a corporate backer, Frontline Education.

“What’s the problem with competency based education?” asks Graham Attwell.

“When Social Media Assignments Increase Risks for Vulnerable Students” by Monica Bulger and Jade E. Davis.

“I learned how to do math with the ancient abacus – and it changed my life,” says Ulrich Boser.

Offering “modules” in an LMS is, apparently, newsworthy.

USA Funds is changing its name to Strada Education Network.

Techcrunch profiles a tutoring company: “Tutoring startup Toot launches into twin policy storms around education and immigration.”

Also via Techcrunch: “Parental control serviceCircle with Disney’ to help with distracted driving, social media, kids’ chores & more.”

Also via Techcrunch: “Current wants to digitize your kid’s allowance with an app and a debit card.”

(Do note: startups selling to parents, rather than startups selling to schools.)

Via Campus Technology: “Johns Hopkins U Website Ranks K-12 Reading, Math Programs Under ESSA Standards.”

I’ve carved off all the “upgrades” and “downgrades” and press releases from SXSWedu into their own category, below.

Dispatches from SXSWedu

Keynotes from Sara Goldrick-Rab and Christopher Emdin.

Via EdWeek Market Brief: “SXSWedu Speakers Break Down Ed-Tech Market Activity Around the Globe.”

Also via EdWeek Market Brief: “Startup Founder Offers Peek Inside Venture Capital Dealmaking at SXSWedu.”

Via The 74: “South by Southwest Education: 10 New Ed Tech Startups About to Grab the Spotlight in Austin.”

Via Campus Technology: “Quizlet Debuts Study Feature That Helps Students Study Efficiently.”

“At #SXSWEdu @TFerriss Espouses The Virtues of Discomfort. Then This Happened,” says Lisa Nielsen. The “this” that happened was an angry response from the audience to Tim Ferriss’ talk, particularly from teacher Derek Breen.

Via Edsurge: “Startup Showdown: Recruiting Startup ‘The Whether’ Takes Home Launch Competition Prize.”

Via SXSWedu: “At SXSWedu, ‘Mastery-Based’ Lessons Touted as Option for Equity.”

Via Edsurge: “Is Edtech Worsening or Righting Inequities in Education? From the SXSWedu Floor.” I can’t think of a better place to ask that question than a corporate event, can you.

Robots and Other Ed-Tech SF

“New study raises concerns about impact of automated social media advocacy on education coverage,” says Alexander Russo. Robots hate the Common Core.

Via Reuters: “Amazon deepens university ties in artificial intelligence race.”

Via The Washington Post: “How millions of kids are being shaped by know-it-all voice assistants.”

Via Techcrunch: “Disney Research has robots matching verbal styles with kids.”

Via PC Magazine: “Researchers Show Off ‘Mind-Reading’ Robot.”

Via Big Tomorrow: “Imagining an AI-First Student Experience.”

Via Motherboard: “Could AI Replace Student Testing?” (Clearly this story could also go in the “Betteridge’s Law of Headlines” section.)

“‘Artificial Intelligence’ Has Become Meaningless,” says Ian Bogost.

Via Quartz: “So long, banana-condom demos: Sex and drug education could soon come from chatbots.”

Venture Capital and the Business of Ed-Tech

Google is acquiring machine learning contest site Kaggle. (Kaggle hosted the robo-essay-grading competition, sponsored by the Hewlett Foundation.)

Grading platform Kiddom has raised $6.5 million from Khosla Ventures. Edsurge notes the deal was led by Keith Rabois, does not note the allegations of sexual harassment against Rabois that prompted him to resign from Square in 2013 or the 1992 incident at Stanford where Rabois allegedly hurled anti-gay insults at a professor. Another great investor for the future of education technology!

An op-ed in Techcrunch by University Ventures co-founder Daniel Pianko: “Rethinking return on education investment.”

Via The New York Times: “Valuation Shell Game: Silicon Valley’s Dirty Secret.”

Privacy, Surveillance, and Information Security

Via the Office of Inadequate Security: “University of Georgia student and employee data found in data dump.”

Via the AP: “ Phishing Scam Hits Connecticut School District, Again.” That’s Groton Public Schools, which the AP helpfully informs us is pronounced GRAH’-tuhn.

Via BlackburnNews.com: “Data Breach At Public School Board.” The board in question: the Greater Essex County District School Board.

Via the CBC: “The University of Moncton says a ninth malicious email was sent to the campus community Thursday night, reaching almost 2,000 students and staff.” The president of the university calls this “cyber terrorism.”

Via The Hechinger Report: “When using data to predict outcomes, consider the ethical dilemmas, new report urges.”

The Guardian on Cambridge Analytica and the “misuse of data in politics.” More on Cambridge Analytica in The New York Times.

There’s more about the politics of data in the politics section above.

Data and “Research”

Via Inside Higher Ed: “Study details tool to help professors measure how much active learning is happening in their classrooms.” It records the voices in a classroom, which seems like a huge privacy violation to me but hey. How else could we possibly tell if there’s “active learning” happening?!

Via Education Week: “New Database Helps Connect Education Researchers, Schools.” It’s called the National Education Researcher Database or NERD.

Via Inside Higher Ed: “Regular drinking isn’t associated with meaningfully lower GPAs, study finds, but those who use alcohol and marijuana do see a decline.”

Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Highest Representation of Racial and Ethnic Groups at Liberal-Arts Colleges, Fall 2015.”

“A new study examines how six adult-serving institutions are defining and using alternative credentials such as badges, noncredit certificates and those issued for successful completion of MOOCs or coding and skills boot camps,” Inside Higher Ed reports.

Via Campus Technology: “Report: iPad, Mac Use Growing in Higher Ed.” iPad use?! Seriously?!

Via Futuresource Consulting: “US K–12 Education Digital Management Platforms & Tools Market to Grow at a CAGR of 4.5% to 2020, to Reach $1.83 Billion.” (I had to google “CAGR” – it’s “compound annual growth rate” in case, like me, you weren’t a business major.)

Icon credits: The Noun Project

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The History of the Future of E-rate

While much of the speculation about the future of education technology under President Trump has been focused on the new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (her investment in various ed-tech companies, her support for vouchers and charter schools), it’s probably worth remembering that the Department of Education is hardly the only agency that shapes education and education technology policy.

The FCC plays a particularly important role in regulating the telecommunications industry, and as such, it has provided oversight for the various technologies long touted as “revolutionizing” education – radio, television, the Internet. (The FCC was established in 1934; the Department of Education, in 1979; its Office of Educational Technology, in 1994.)

Tom Wheeler, the head of the FCC under President Obama, stepped down from his role and left the agency on January 20 – the day of President Trump’s inauguration. Wheeler had been a “champion” of net neutrality and E-rate reform, according to Education Week at least, but his replacement, Trump appointee Ajit Pai, seems poised to lead the agency with a very different set of priorities – and those priorities will likely shape in turn what happens to ed-tech under Trump. As an op-ed in The Washington Post put it, “The FCC talks the talk on the digital divide – and then walks in the other direction.”

Indeed, one of the first moves made by the FCC under Pai was to block nine companies from providing subsidized Internet service to low-income families.The agency also rescinded a report about the progress made in modernizing the E-rate program, something that had been the focus of Wheeler’s tenure – a report that had been released just two days before Wheeler left office – removing it from the FCC website altogether. (An archived copy is available via Doug Levin’s website.)

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, issued a strongly worded rebuke to that move, calling E-rate “without question the single most important educational technology program in the country.”

Despite this praise, the program has long been controversial, frequently criticized for fraud and waste. Arguably, E-rate is one of the key pieces of ed-tech-related legislation in the US, and as such it’s worth examining its origins, its successes, and its failures.

What can E-rate tell us about the relationship between politics and ed-tech? Who has benefited?

A History of E-rate Legislation

E-rate is the name commonly used to describe the Schools and Libraries Program of the Universal Service Fund, established as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The act called for “universal service” so that all Americans could have access to affordable telecommunications services, regardless of their geographical location. The legislation also ordered telecom companies to provide their services to all public schools and libraries at discounted rates – from 20% to 90% off depending on the services provided and number of students receiving free and reduced school lunches. The program, whose subsidies were initially capped at $2.25 billion, was to be funded through mandatory contributions from telecom providers – the Universal Service Fund (USF). (Telecom providers added fees to customers’ bills in order to pay for their contributions.)

The FCC initially appointed the National Carrier Exchange Association, the non-profit organization charged with managing the USF, with handling the E-rate program, but eventually a new organization was created to do this: the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC).

From the outset, the program faced Congressional scrutiny, with questions about its scope, its management, and its funding. In particular, legislators were concerned that the charges levied on telecoms in order to pay for E-rate might be a tax (rather than a fee). (If the charges were a tax, it would be unconstitutional for the Executive branch and not Congress to exact them.) Some members of Congress also objected to the level of funding for E-rate. They argued that the program cost too much money and took needed funds away from other “universal service” efforts; some proposed that the program be replaced by block grants.

In 2014, the FCC undertook a “modernization” plan for E-rate in part to address the changing demand for telecommunications services. The agency issued an order to support affordable access to high-speed broadband in particular (not merely “access to the Internet”) and to boost access and bandwidth of schools’ WiFi networks.

As part of these modernization efforts, in 2015 the funding cap for E-rate was increased to $3.9 billion and the way in which funds were allocated was an adjusted – all in an attempt to “spread the wealth” beyond just a few large districts that had historically benefited most from the program.

According its January 2017 report, the FCC’s modernization push enabled some 77% of school districts to meet the minimum federal connectivity targets by the end of 2016; just 30% had met those requirements in 2013. (That is, Internet speeds of 100 Mbps per 1000 users.) During the same period, the cost that schools paid for Internet connectivity fell from $22 to $7 per Mbps.

“Progress,” the FCC boasted in the report. “No comment,” the FCC said in February when asked why the report on the modernization efforts had been pulled from its website. Commissioner Pai had voted against those efforts, for what it’s worth, back in 2014, saying that the FCC order did little to curb bureaucracy or waste.

A Brief History of E-rate Fraud

Throughout its history, the E-rate program has faced repeated scrutiny from Congress, from Republican members of the FCC like Pai, and from the General Accounting Office, which issued a report in 2005 that took issue with the “unusual” organizational structure of the USAC and questioned whether or not E-rate was sufficiently responsive to accountability standards that would “help protect the program and the fund from fraud, waste, and abuse.”

And there have been plenty of accusations and lawsuits regarding “fraud, waste, and abuse.” Among them: an $8.71 million settlement paid by Inter-Tel in 2004 over accusations of rigging the bidding process. A $21 million settlement paid by NEC in 2006 for price-fixing. An $8.2 million settlement paid by AT&T in 2009 over accusations of non-competitive bidding practices and overcharging. A $16.25 million settlement paid by Hewlett Packard in 2010 over accusations of fraud. A $3 million settlement paid by the New York City DOE in 2016 over accusations of mishandling the bidding process. (Here is the full list of those who’ve been convicted of criminal or civil violations and have therefore been barred from participating in the E-rate program.)

As some of these settlements highlight, while the E-rate program was supposed to ensure that schools received discounted telecommunications services, this hasn’t always happened. ProPublica reported on over-charging in the E-rate program in 2012,

Lawsuits and other legal actions in Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan and New York have turned up evidence that AT&T and Verizon charged local school districts much higher rates than it gave to similar customers or more than what the program allowed.

AT&T has charged some schools up to 325 percent more than it charged others in the same region for essentially the same services. Verizon charged a New York school district more than twice as much as it charged government and other school customers in that state.

Despite these issues, a court decision in 2014 blocked the USAC from prosecuting telecoms for making false statements about offering schools and libraries the “Lowest Corresponding Price,” arguing that this falls outside the False Claims Act, a statute that allows the government to pursue fraud claims against businesses. The burden of proof that schools and libraries are being offered a competitive price falls on the applicants themselves.

E-rate and the History of the Future of the “Digital Divide”

When the E-rate program was first established in 1996, only 14% of K–12 classrooms in the US had access to the Internet. Almost all schools are now connected to the Internet, although – as that FCC modernization report underscores – not all classrooms have access to high-speed broadband, and not all schools have WiFi networks that can support the heavy data demands on their bandwidth. According to EducationSuperhighway, a non-profit organization that lobbies for increased Internet access, 88% of public schools now have the minimum level of Internet access – that is, 100 kbps per student), although just 15% offer the FCC’s goal – that is, 1 Mbps per student.

According to both EducationSuperhighway and the FCC, it is imperative to “level the playing field” so that schools and libraries, regardless of geographic location or the income level of students they serve, all have access to affordable high speed Internet. Certainly in the 1990s, when E-rate was introduced, its goal was to address this very issue – “the digital divide.”

Cost has certainly remained a barrier for the poorest schools, as has the infrastructure itself in some areas – a lack of high speed broadband service altogether, for example. Some schools “cannot overcome the 19th century buildings to take advantage of 20th century technology,” Education Secretary Richard Riley told The New York Times in 2000.

But there’s another access to “the digital divide” beyond simply who can afford “the digital,” and that’s something that Macomb Community College professor Chris Gilliard calls “digital redlining”: “the growing sense that digital justice isn’t only about who has access but also about what kind of access they have, how it’s regulated, and how good it is.” That issue with “what kind of access” is core to E-rate because of an associated law, the Children’s Internet Protection Act.

The act, known as CIPA, was passed in 2000 – one of a series of pieces of legislation that attempted to curb if not criminalize “adult materials” online in places “where minors would be able to find it.” The Communications Decency Act, for example, was passed in 1996 – the same year as the Telecommunications Act – but was found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court the following year. In 1998, Congress again sought to address children’s exposure to “harmful materials” with passage of the Child Online Protection Act, but this too was challenged in court. The Supreme Court also found the Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1998 unconstitutional in 2002.

Recognizing these legal challenges, Congress took a slightly different tact with CIPA. Rather than regulating content on the Web writ large, it opted to restrict what schools and libraries that receive federal funding – through the Library Services and Technology Act, Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Act, the Museum and Library Services Act, or E-rate – could allow people to view online. CIPA requires schools and libraries to create “acceptable use” policies for Internet usage, to hold a public meeting about how it will ensure safety online, and to use a “technology protection measure” to keep Internet users away from materials online that are “obscene,” “child pornography,” or “harmful to minors.” That is, CIPA requires Web filtering.

The law has faced its own share of legal challenges, including one from the American Library Association. The Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that CIPA does not violate the Constitution.

One of the myriad complaints about CIPA is that it results in “over-filtering” – that schools and libraries block content that are not “obscene” or “harmful to minors.” There are many stories about how information about things like breast cancer or LGBTQ issues or drug abuse is inaccessible at certain schools. (I have found that my website is blocked by many because it contains that dangerous word “hack.”)

Now that schools are increasingly providing students with laptops or tablets, filtering software often happens at the device-level, not simply at the school network level. That is, the Internet remains filtered, even when students are on their laptops at home.

Clearly this is an equity issue – one that complicates how “the digital divide” has traditionally been framed and what E-rate was supposed to address. Those who rely on the Internet networks at E-rate supported schools have their Internet access restricted and monitored in turn.

E-rate and the Future of Ed-Tech

The decision by the new FCC to rescind its report on E-rate raises plenty of questions about the future of the program under President Trump. Will the FCC reduce spending on universal service? Will the agency revise regulatory oversight for the E-rate program? What might this look like?

How might this, alongside Ajit Pai’s opposition to “net neutrality,” reshape access to information at schools and libraries (particularly those that serve a low-income population and those in rural areas)?

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