The e-rate boondoggle

The federal e-rate, which comes from a surtax on phone service, pays to wire schools, closing the “digital divide” between the rich and the poor. Overpays, writes techno-skeptic Todd Oppenheimer in The Nation. The e-rate is a huge boondoggle that ultimately widens the educational divide.

There are three bitter paradoxes in this. First, it won’t be long before the Internet goes wireless, which will make much of the schools’ investment in wired computing — at a cost of roughly $80 billion over the past decade — obsolete. Second, yesteryear’s frenzy to wire the schools occurred during very flush times. Today, states are struggling with budget cuts — and the damage these cuts are doing to fundamental school needs such as building repairs, teacher salaries and purchases of books, science supplies and other classroom necessities.

And the benefits of technology are mostly hype.

. . . when business leaders talk about what they need from new recruits, they hardly mention computer skills, which they find they can teach employees relatively easily on their own. Most employers say their priority is what are sometimes called “soft” skills: a deep knowledge base; the ability to listen and communicate; to think critically and imaginatively; to read, write and figure; and many other capabilities that schools are increasingly neglecting. A report from the Information Technology Association of America, which represents a range of companies that use technology, put it this way: “Want to get a job using information technology to solve problems? Know something about the problems that need to be solved.”

Poor schools have almost as many computers as rich schools, according to the Education Department. But students aren’t learning any more — especially if their teachers are wasting time trying to get the computers running.

When the computers do work, fancy software programs automate design and math functions so beautifully that students don’t have to think through much of their work anymore. School papers throughout the country are so dominated by computer graphics these days that students often spend only a fraction of their time on the intellectual content of the assignment.

Via Eduwonk.

Update: A division of NEC has admitted defrauding San Francisco and other school districts on e-rate contracts.

About Joanne


  1. Mike in Texas says:

    Eduwonk is a prime example of “experts” going on and on about subject they no little about. Of course, their solution to everything is to form those wonderful charter schools. I read some of the articles and found opponents of reduced class size and “fruitless comprehension” learning. Any classroom teacher would laugh at these naive ideas.

    Joanne, how about some links to articles written by the teachers on the frontlines, who are in the classrooms day in and day out? Those are the only people I take seriously. They’ve been there, done that, got the t-shirt.

  2. Mike, check out some of the teacher blogs on Joanne’s list. She almost never links to them in her daily posts, but you’ll get a better feel for real classroom life.

    The teacher blogs also tend to be a lot less gloomy than the couch pundits throwing peanuts at us over here.

  3. Steve LaBonne says:

    I love your “logic”, Mike. Only the insiders in a broken system should be consulted on how to fix it? Evidently you’re planning to vote for Bush- since the Bush Administration “broke” Iraq, according to your thinking they must be the only people who can fix it!

  4. Steve LaBonne says:

    Suzie, you might want to keep in mind the fact that many of us “couch pundits” are parents, i.e. _your customers_.

  5. “it won’t be long before the Internet goes wireless, which will make much of the schools’ investment in wired computing — at a cost of roughly $80 billion over the past decade — obsolete”

    Incorrect. Wireless doesn’t render wired obsolete. You still get a high-speed connection. I could argue that wireless costs more though.

  6. Anonymous says:

    “First, it won’t be long before the Internet goes wireless, which will make much of the schools’ investment in wired computing — at a cost of roughly $80 billion over the past decade — obsolete.”

    No it isn’t and no it won’t. Wireless is not inherently better than wired. In fact, the best current wireless technology can muster is 56Mbit data rates while wired easily achieves 100+Mbit and does so with fewer problems and cheaper components. One might argue that they should have pulled fiber optic (no forseable obsolescence) instead of copper wire, but that would be an expensive decision today and VERY expensive 10 years ago. Also, one has to understand the structure of a network before making claims like “the internet is going wireless”.

    In terms of computer hardware generally, the rate of change has been so high that of course things from a decade ago are obsolete. Waiting to avoid obsolescence is a never ending wait.

    It may have been a mistake to put so much into computerization of the schools, but the mistake was not one of choosing technologies that would eventually become obsolete.

  7. Walter Wallis says:

    I still want to see big prizes, like in the millions, for effective education programs.

  8. The Nation is a crackpot publication, not to be used as a reference for anything.

    While I’m not sure whether I agree with the assessment (often presented on this site) that tends to denigrate the importance of technology in education, I am quite sure that I wouldn’t refer to The Nation as a source. The Nation is a thinly disguised Stalinist publication, openly hostile toward business, and blessedly ignorant of technology, as a cursory reading of the source article reveals.

    Businesses, which tend to look first at the bottom line, are heavily invested in computer based education. I don’t know what this says for K-12.

    Hard computer skills are the most difficult employee asset for a business to find. Why else do you think that American businesses support Indian immigrants who want to get their green cards? American (read non-Asian) kids are simply too lazy, too undisciplined and too ego oriented to do the work of coding and engineering. It is true that it is necessary to conceptualize work that must be done, but after that, somebody has to do the hard work of implementing those concepts.

    Frankly, I don’t know quite what to make of this post, but I think that just about everybody who has posted is defending a self-interest rather than objectively assessing the role of technology in education.

  9. Anonymous says:

    The schools of this nation are full of computers that no one knows how to configure or operate. Wired or wireless, it makes no difference. A very large proportion of teachers are techno-phobic, and cannot be trained to make the machines work, particularly when networked. I have seen this time after time after time, and the computers sit idle, odd techno-sculpture offering mute testimony to the failure of the educational system to use technology.

  10. Roy W. Wright says:

    …offering mute testimony to the failure of the educational system to use technology.

    You can add it to the list of testimonies to the failures of public education.

    It may have been a mistake to put so much into computerization of the schools, but the mistake was not one of choosing technologies that would eventually become obsolete.

    I agree; it disgusts me when a new technology comes along and we are made to believe that it somehow invalidates older technologies. Wired high-speed internet is more than adequate for the purposes of education, however “obsolete” it may become.

  11. Roy W. Wright says:

    Ah yes, and…

    I read some of the articles and found opponents of reduced class size… Any classroom teacher would laugh at these naive ideas.

    I imagine the teachers unions, at least, would laugh nervously at opposition to reducing class sizes, since it would cut into their racket.

  12. Actually, hard computer skills are the least problems business have finding in potential hires (high school or college).

    I recently attended a local business seminar, and the number ONE complaint among businessmen and women, a lack of work ethic, poor reading, writing, and math skills, lack of critical thinking, analysis, and problem solving skills, lack of common sense, and a complete lack of inter-personal skills (aka soft skills). These individuals stated that this was in college as well as high school graduates.

    The issue of indians being more skilled than US peers is debatable at best, as their educational level might be better, but they are NO better or worse at thinking outside the box than US workers (trust me on this one, i’ve been in the industry 22 years, so I do know what i’m talking about).

    Technology is merely a tool, but without a solid grasp of the foundations which comprise the tool, you won’t be able to master it at all.

  13. I am one of the ‘Luddites’ who would pay extra to NOT have computers in classrooms – most particularly in the primary and middle school grades.

    When expounding on this, I am able to cause many people to have thoughtful looks when I note “You know, the people who invented modern computing and the internet never had computers in their classrooms…”

    I’ll change my mind when you can show me a computer that cares about a student.

  14. “Hard computer skills are the most difficult employee asset for a business to find.” Even if this is true, how does putting computers in K-12 schools help? Very few schools are teaching systems design and programming. I don’t think there’s much knowledge transfer from making PowerPoint slides to writing C++ code (other than typing skills.) By analogy, putting tremendous emphasis on driver’s ed classes would not produce automotive engineers.

  15. “The schools of this nation are full of computers that no one knows how to configure or operate.”

    Joanne’s right that poor schools (finally) have almost as many computers as rich schools – there were enormous discrepancies five years ago. But now there’s a problem in worthwhile and effective use of technology.

    For one thing, wealthy schools are much more likely to have paid technology coordinators (according to Dept of Ed. stats). Schools with more than 75% students on reduced lunch are more likely to have one or more teachers fullfill similar roles of technology supervisors. This additional responsibility probably makes both those teachers and the computer networks less effective.

  16. Walter Wallis says:

    I have architects who still work with pencil on a drafting board 20 years into the computer aided drafting age. They [and i] came from an era when a door slab across two sawhorses and a T-Square got you into business. You don’t just dump books unto the campus and ride off into the sunset. Give teachers all the available tools, an air conditioned classroom and the authority to toss out disrupters and, even if they are all democrats, they will educate our kids.

  17. Rita C. says:

    Do I get extra points for educating kids without air conditioning? You’re killing me, Walter.

  18. Kirk Parker says:

    Can we please drive a huge, poisoned stake through the heart of that ridiculous phrase “soft skills”? What’s soft about them? As I told a group of high-school, community- and technical-college teachers who visited our computer consulting company recently, they’re actually the durable skills. If you can write and present as lucidly as Brian Kernighan, you can go from Fortran to C++ to Java to whatever quite easily. The reverse is hardly ever true.

  19. Anonymous says:


    All Walter means, I think, is that the egregious amounts spent via eRate could have easily purchased a much more comfortable and effective learning environment.

  20. Walter Wallis says:

    As a mechanical engineer I have an interest in air conditioning, but I tried once to operate an office withour A/C and it just does not work. I am especially impressed with schools where the classrooms are not air conditioned but the admin is. [Overfelt was air conditioned] Rita, your classroom should have A/C and effective lighting and computers and serenity and anything else to allow you to do what you do – teach. While it might make an interesting reality TV show to have teachers trying to teach while thir hair was on fire, it is not an effective use of funds and opportunity.

  21. You would be horrified to know how recently our schools were air conditioned. It gets VERY HOT around here in the fall and the spring. Some schools had to be closed because of the heat. For security purposes, windows couldn’t even be opened in some of them. It was inhuman. The worst were schools that were partly air conditioned; students had to go back and forth between 68 and 98 degree classrooms every day. You cannot learn that way.

  22. Kirk, the concept of soft skills in business has nothing to do with technology, but rather the ability of the employee to work well with others, customers, and focus on the task at hand, along with being able to read, write, and perform simple math skills.

    Sadly, a lot of employers tell schools they do a terrible job in this area (but what do you expect when kids get no discipline from parents, and are allowed to go completely crazy in a public setting (a restaurant is a good example))?


  23. The statement about copper being obsolete may have been a reference to the increased use of notebook computers, already widespread at college level.

    Given the cost of labor and materials for wiring a classroom, wireless is already quite competitive, and will be even more so now that most laptops are starting to ship with it built-in. I don’t think the difference in speed between 11 M-bit wireless and 100 M-bit copper is significant.

    I worked for a company that networked classroom computers in the late 80’s and early 90’s (Apple II, PC, and Mac), and was always disappointed in the limited ways in which the computers were being used. Of course some of the “drill and kill” programs were good at specific tasks, and word processing probably made writing much less intimidating (it certainly did for me), but I always thought the real potential was in self-paced (and to some extent self-directed) learning. If you can pay a teacher to stand in front of a class and write on a white board, why can’t you capture the lecture on a video that can be paused, replayed, and annotated?

    On the other hand, I still have my old Keedy-Bittinger pre-calc workbook from a Jr. college course I took in the late 70’s. It was a two-quarter course which I finished in one, and I swear I retained more than I did in most of my “sage on stage” courses. It may not work for everyone, but techology could make the same thing possible for a wider range of learning styles.

    I wonder how William Bennett’s material is in this regard?

  24. Walter Wallis says:

    Amen, Laura. Back when I was doing schools, it fried me when classroom air conditioning and hot water in the lavatories went away for cost reasons. I also believe any classroom that does not exit directly to the outside should be sprinkled.
    But then I am just an engineer.

  25. Chris Haynes says:

    Read the article in The Nation. When quoting publications a little left or right of center makes for lively debate. Hard left or right infuriates and does not make much of a point that is willing to be entertained. I learned Basic in school. Did not know why but I thought it might be of use some day. I still do not use it, however teaching technology for a living it does occur to me that some of that Basic programming still hold true. It’s LOGIC! I second Walter’s notions of what a good learning enviroment would be minus the Democrat teachers ( with an emphasis on A/C, the colder the better)

  26. Kirk Parker says:

    Uh, Bill, either your or my “soft” skills are lacking, as I was not critizing the skills themselves, but rather the somewhat-deprecating term “soft” as a description of them.

  27. Rita C. says:

    Somehow I manage to teach and the kids manage to learn without A/C. Some parts of the building do have A/C, but my wing is very old and the electrical wiring won’t support a coffee pot, nevermind an air conditioner (true — tried it once). I have a computer on my desk for my use. If I’m doing computer stuff with the kids, we go to a lab. I think we have 3 to serve 1200 kids. That can be a little tight if several of us are doing big research papers, but mostly it seems sufficient. Every classroom doesn’t have to be full of PC’s. They’re more of a distraction than anything else. In addition to behavior, dress code, talking, and all the other little crap I have to police, I’d have to monitor games and email. At least I can take away their calculators and cell phones.

  28. Walter Wallis says:

    Why not eliminate heat in the classrooms, too? All you have to do is bundle up.

  29. Steve, I am also a parent.

  30. Tim from Texas says:

    It seems to me ,we are all interested in educating our children in a system that works efficiently and uses our tax dollars and resources wisely and frugally.

    There are so many unnecessary things that can be eliminated at schools and in any district wide system, which would cut costs and free up money,in some cases not immediately, but in the not-so-long run. There are other things that can be cut to a minimum. Moreover, I think it can be argued, that doing so, would not hamper or slow production, nor damage the product– educated youth.

    First, in my opinion, the physical aspects of the system need to be revamped and retooled. So,if you please, and I suppose, since I’m going to do it, if you don’t please, I will ask a few questions.

    Is it wise to spend $80,000,000,000.00 in a decade for any tool before it’s completely proven its value beyond doubt?

    Do schools really need so many expensive copy machines?

    Do the teachers and students need such expensive texts, in order to teach and learn?

    Other than in the PE and sports dressing rooms, do the students need lockers?

    Is it necessary to install so many drinking fountains and do they really need to be refridgerated?

    Do teachers need so many lounges and/or work rooms?

    Do middle schools and high schools need vast expanded spaces between facilities and otherwise?

    Are there many features and facilities in our schools that we don’t allow students to use or take advantage ,and if they are , isn’t it very rare?

    Yes,things like refridgerated water fountains might seem nit-picky, but isn’t every dollar important?

    Of course, there are other questions that need to be asked in respect to the the physical, but now to a much more controversial subject, personnel.

    Does a well working school need so many administrators?

    Does a well working school district office need so many administrative positions?

    Are there as many school/district administrators in the state of New York as there are in all of Europe?

    Do schools need counselors of any sort? A short comment here. I got very tired of stumbling over counselors and cleaning up their messes and I don’t think I’m alone in my evaluation of the counseling position.

    Do we really need so many teachers? A short comment here. I have never seen any proof nor have I experienced any proof, that smaller classes,say at a number of 20, are better, in any form or fashion, than say, classes of 40.

    Would larger classes free up money to possibly seek out the best teachers and/or the best teacher prospects?

    There are , of course, more questions which could be asked in the personnel catagory as well. However, I do remember,I did say “a few”.

    To close, it seems to me that when it comes to evaluating our schools, and their administrative sytems, we have in the past, and in most respects now, reacted like “the third monkey”, for it is such a sensitive, scary and emotional subject in so many ways.

  31. I will say, up front, that I am no fan of computers in the classroom. Here’s another aspect of the spending spree, which should be considered: how do you know that all this money ever purchases equipment, at all? A school administrator has just been arrested for embezzlement. (

    One interesting quote, in this context, is: “Nassau prosecutor Peter Mancuso yesterday said Gluckin stole “in excess of $1 million.” Gluckin cut checks to her own “fictitious” company, Computer and Technical Services, as well as another company owned by her husband, said Mancuso. The payments were ostensibly for services to the school, but went into her pocket, he said.”

    Is she the only unethical administrator to have thought of this wrinkle? I doubt it.

  32. Rita C. says:

    Tim from Texas: when you don’t have A/C in the classrooms, yeah, you need some cold water readily available.

    I have attended schools where the heat was set at the minimum to prevent the pipes from freezing (all those Massachusetts tax revisions in the 80’s were interesting times to live through). Kinda hard to take notes with gloves on, but I guess I managed.

    I think with 40 kids/per class, you’re treading in teacher burnout waters. This year, I have about 135 students total. That’s 135 x about 7 essays per semester, a major research paper, tests, quizzes, homeworks, etc. My kids have 75 grades (x 135) this semester. An essay takes an average of about 10 – 15 minutes each to grade properly. That’s a LOT of grading. I’m given one official hour per day to plan and do all that grading. If you bump me up to 200 students, the amount of grading skyrockets. I work evenings and weekends now. I’m not sure I’d stick with the profession with that much more work demand. I couldn’t teach properly and have any sort of life outside of school. Also, I wouldn’t get to know so many of my students. I don’t think that shows up on standardized tests, but with today’s hands-off parenting, etc. means a lot of these kids are very needy for attention. Sure, get rid of the counselors, but who takes their place when a kid writes to you about how she was raped last week (true story)? I know you don’t approve of “personal realtionships” with the kids, but I have them whether I want them or not. I can’t turn a kid away with something like that. Anyway, end of the year rambling.

  33. Tim from Texas says:

    Rita: That A/C hasn’t been provided in the classrooms is absolutely horrid. If I were also teaching in a school that doesn’t have windows to open and very quiet fans circulating the air while I wait for the A/C to be installed, or at least the promise of a soon-to-be-installed A/C system, then I’m afraid the last portion of me that anyone in that school district would see would be the soles of my shoes, my hind end, and my elbows.

    Cold water in any situation is not necessary to supply the body’s need for water replenishment.
    Moreover, it has been argued that drinking cold water or any cold liguid is not good for the stomach. Yes, the first jolt of cold water is nice, but quite unnecessary. In addition, more water can be consumed at room temp.,which results in fewer trips to the fountain.

    Before continuing,I want to say I can understand from this post and previous posts that you are a very hard working teacher. Also from this post I can tell your fortitude is greater than mine, which is evident from my first paragraph here.
    I wish you a cool,cool summer holiday.

    As to all that grading you do, I say: Wow. However, I must also say this: Whether a teacher has 10, 20,30, or 40 in a class, that is far too much grading and far too many grades. Cut it to at least a third. It is not necessary to have that much grading to assess a student’s abilities. As a matter of fact, one can argue that so many graded assignments and tests are a direct detriment to the learning process. Naturally, such a reduction should be introduced at the proper rate to allow adjustments on the part of the students, and I suppose for the teacher as well. Yes, it does seem, at first thought, ridiculous, but please, give it long consideration, for it is not only very good for the students, but very good for the teacher as well.

    It is evident you’re in a school where there are students that need alot of attention. I’ve been there too. Less grading will be better in this respect also. You will have more energy,and more energy means better moods,better body language and so forth. Also, it will afford you some nice evenings and weekends in a row to tend to yourself. You are human and not a machine and don’t forget it! And finally on this subject, you don’t need to know the students personally to be able to assist them and give them advise when appropriate. Getting to close to any student or students is far too emotionally draining and in the long run you can’t really help them enough comensurate to the energy and emotion sucked from you.

    Ahhhhhh, now to counselors, I agree there must be somewhere to send students in crisis as the poor girl you mentioned. Yes to a crisis counselor would be fine, some one brought from the outside a true professional in such matters. Maybe a large school with many such students, another such counselor. However, there should not be counselors who students can visit to whine about trvial things , get their schedule changed, for any reasons, including academic reasons. Counselors, because the position attracts those persons, who are dying to leave the classroom, and who have the propensity to be fooled by students and listen to and give credence to any and every whine a student has,shoud not be allowed to even look at a schedule much less do any scheduling whatsoever.

  34. Rita C. says:

    My windows do open, but I bought my own fan :). Let me say that I like the district I work in very much. Teachers are focused on teaching, the administration backs us up, and we don’t have to deal with such nonsense as submitting our lesson plans every week. I’ll take being treated as a professional over A/C any day.

    As for the grading, the kids have to write lots of essays in order to learn how to write lots of essays. I can’t stand up there and blah blah about transitions and expect them to master them without attempting them. I also believe in frequent quizzing to check to see what they’re getting and not getting, especially when it comes to grammar. I don’t test that often, but the papers and quizzes add up. Believe me, I’m trying to cut a lot of it. It’s hard to argue with some of the results I get, though.

  35. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Even though as an engineer I make much higher fees on a custom built school building than I make on a site adaptation for relocatables, I believe those relocatables are the wave of the future.
    Bring in a bunch of working teachers, paying each one royally for their opinion, and nail down the design for 5 years.
    My own choice would be for 20 CFM of outside air per occupant, 68 degrees for the students and a supplementary electric heater under the teacher’s desk.
    I still like the 100 Footcandles we tried for years ago, with dimming available when needed.
    If the class size is reduced to 20, perhaps the module could hold a private office and toilet for the teacher. Plus a gun rack in some districts.
    A big screen/monitor and both local and internet connectivity.
    The student laptop I discussed previously.
    No windows.
    A hug for the teacher whenever he/she earns it or just needs it.
    Oh, and a private parking spot for all teachers but not administrators.

  36. Rita C. says:

    Without windows, all my plants would die. How dismal.

    I get plenty of hugs under the present system.

    I don’t teach from my desk, so you don’t have to bother putting anything under it.