Some independent academic research has tended to find zero or negative results studying the correlation between more and faster broadband internet in schools and student achievement. Thomas Hazlett characterizes President Barack Obama’s plan to connect schools to the Internet as “misguided.” In 2013 the president proposed expanding the $2.25 billion E-Rate budget to $4 billion a year. “The Federal Communications Commission quickly enacted the plan under authority granted to the agency in 1996.”
In The Agenda in Politico, Hazlett reports:
Even during times of political gridlock, connecting schools to the Internet has always received bipartisan support. Politicians ranging from Bill Clinton to Newt Gingrich have endorsed the concept, and the federal government has funneled billions of dollars annually to boost Internet access for students under a twenty-year-old policy called “E-Rate.”
E-Rate is almost the perfect Washington D.C. program. It hits the hot buttons of education, technology, and good jobs at good wages in one shot and spreads federal monies to vendors and consultants in every corner of the country. And no politician has ever been defeated for public office by touting improved Internet connections at local schools.
But in a large study of students in North Carolina, two colleagues and I recently found that the actual benefits for students—the kids the program is supposed to help—are about zero. In fact, our research found that the E-Rate program marginally hurt student performance rather than helped it.
Hazlett recommends suspending the E-Rate program until the theory behind it passes an objective performance test. “Using online data sources, we can see if subsidies for broadband improve student understanding,” Hazlett says. “If results mirror our research, and outcomes remain negative, the program should be terminated.”
If further evidence quantifies positive impacts, those gains should be compared to different ideas for using $4 billion annually, such as teacher incentives, superior principals, more vouchers, tax credits or charter schools. Only if E-Rate is the best use of money should Congress reinstate the program. If we want our children to learn something important using computers, we should start by showing them that we can, as well.
Hazlett warns that educational technology is often oversold. He notes that in 2013, the Los Angeles United School District planned to spend $1.3 billion to give an Apple iPad to each of its 640,00 students. The program was a disaster and was suspended after $100 million was spent. “Kids almost instantly hacked their way out of the firewalls that limited access to inappropriate sites, while customized software proved inoperable,” Hazlett reports.
Thomas Hazlett is H.H. Macaulay Endowed Professor of Economics at Clemson University, where he also directs the Information Economy Project. He formerly served as Chief Economist of the Federal Communications Commission.