FCC head sees waste in school Internet push

A member of the Federal Communications Commission said Tuesday that public schools — including those in President Obama's hometown of Chicago — have wasted millions intended to connect students to the Internet on gadgets such as smart phones for school administrators.

In a speech at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai proposed a reform of the "E-Rate" plan that would redirect as much as $1 billion per year to classrooms instead of allowing what he called "irresponsible decisions" by local school officials. He also proposed to shift the funding formula to a per-student basis nationwide, instead of devoting most of the funding to poor and rural school districts.

"Congress did not ask the FCC to subsidize school administrators' anytime minutes," Mr. Pai said. "Fiber to the football field is nobody's rallying cry."

One example of wasteful spending that he cited was the Chicago school district, which received tens of millions of dollars from the federal government in 2004 to connect students to the Internet.

"When the system fell two years behind schedule, Chicago schools decided to spend the money on $8 million in computer-related equipment so that [they] wouldn't lose the money — and that equipment then had no place to go but storage, where it sat for years," said Mr. Pai, a Republican member of the FCC board appointed by Mr. Obama in 2012.

He also said the Atlanta school district wasted tens of millions of dollars of E-Rate funding "to create a lavish computer network that included laying miles of fiber between schools."

"At least $2 million was spent on the beginning of a wireless network before a decision was made to abandon that project," Mr. Pai said. "Even after all this E-Rate funding, three-quarters of Atlanta Public Schools' students had less than an hour per day of computer use."

Last month, Mr. Obama visited a classroom in North Carolina to issue a call to overhaul the discounted E-Rate program for schools and libraries. He proposed using existing federal funding to help more students get the benefit of Internet in their classrooms.

Mr. Pai said the FCC is partly to blame for not monitoring the E-Rate program more effectively. He proposed several changes, including dividing up the available funding on a per-student basis, instead of providing it mainly to rural and urban schools.

He also said the program should "redirect spending away from outdated services and toward next-generation technologies that directly benefit students."

"That means funding broadband, not stand-alone telephone service, toll-free service or cellphone service," he said.


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