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E-Rate Doesn’t Improve Learning, Study Says

The E-Rate program, which has provided $25 billion in subsidies since 1996 to schools from the Federal government for broadband, internal wiring, and networking equipment, hasn’t correlated with increased test scores among students in North Carolina, a recent study says.

The researchers studied how E-rate affected the number of students per Internet-connected computer, SAT scores, and how dollars per student affect test scores from 1999-2013 in public high schools.

Under E-rate, schools could apply for grants from the government that would give them a 20 percent to 90 percent discount on telecommunications services and costs associated with Internet wiring, depending on the school’s needs.

The researchers found that E-rate funding didn’t improve learning in North Carolina, proving that in this case, Internet connection doesn’t always equal a better education. This is a concern because the subsidies are paid for by an 18.2 percent tax on certain telephone charges regardless of the taxpayer’s relative income.

“Given that our results show that increasing E-Rate funding has no impact on SAT scores, it seems logical that the money could be better spent on other educational reforms that might improve student performance,” the study said.

President Obama’s ConnectED program seeks to expand E-Rate to include the cost of Wi-Fi and almost double the money already being spent in order to invest in teacher training and software development.

“It seems prudent that the government would develop a program that evaluates performance to ensure that the money delivers on what is being promised,” the study said. “Otherwise, the government will continue to spend billions of dollars without receiving anything in return. The Government Accountability Office has been making this point for years.”

Some counties interpret the products and services available under the E-Rate discount broadly. Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland started to use E-Rate funds in 2008 to purchase Promethean boards, which are interactive white boards. The Promethean boards don’t fall under E-Rate, because E-Rate covers connections instead of devices, according to Thomas Hazlett, one of the authors of the study, H.H. Macaulay endowed professor of economics, and director of the Information Economy Project at Clemson University.

Hazlett is also skeptical about whether E-Rate was a main factor in connecting schools to the Internet. The Department of Education found that by 2008, 98 percent of schools had broadband, and 94 percent had high-speed Internet access.

“That E-Rate was responsible for this increase in connectivity is dubious, but regardless, the task of bringing the Internet to schools seems to be long ago complete,” Hazlett said in a contribution for Politico.

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