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The disconnect over technology in schools

On a Thursday in early June, President Barack Obama visited Mooresville Middle School, where students in the gymnasium showed him some snazzy technology that allowed “smart” whiteboards to communicate with iPads and iPad minis. Obama was duly impressed, and he used the moment to announce a plan that would allow most every school in the U.S. to have the opportunity to use that kind of technology.

ConnectEd would expand access to high-speed broadband and wireless Internet to 99 percent of U.S. schools within five years. It’s an ambitious plan that could help teachers harness technology in rural areas where such progress wouldn’t otherwise happen. But on the day of the Mooresville visit, the news was overtaken by revelations of a spying program at the National Security Agency.

Now, two months later, Republicans in Washington are beginning to rally against ConnectEd, according to a Washington Post report this week. Some are objecting to the program’s cost, which is estimated at $4 billion to $6 billion, but the louder protests involve how Obama plans to pay for it. The administration is proposing raising fees to mobile phone users by about 33 cents a month over three years, an increase that can be approved by the Federal Communications Commission, bypassing Congress.

It’s a relatively small cost for a potentially big payoff. For now, few are arguing that students wouldn’t benefit from high-speed Internet access. The use of technology in schools is in its infancy, with studies showing that classroom gadgets and Internet access haven’t really moved the needle on basic learning. But more teachers are exploring the possibilities that devices bring, and done right, technology is already showing the promise of allowing teachers to be more precise and attentive – and students to learn better at their own pace. Other countries are beating us in the race toward this realization.

In U.S. schools, however, technology is threatening to widen the achievement gap between students from affluent and low-income districts. ConnectEd would especially be felt in rural areas, which by the way have a more even split of Democrats and Republicans. It’s why, in a less toxic environment, Congress certainly might be inclined to approve funds for a program like ConnectEd.

But this is 2013, and Republicans want no part in programs for which the president can take credit. A ConnectEd bill would never make it through Congress, so Obama has decided an alternate route, through an FCC commission that has more Democrats than Republicans.

This should prompt some discomfort for Americans, given Obama’s history. From deciding to change rules in a landmark welfare-to-work law to announcing that children of immigrants would be safe from deportation, the administration has shown a pattern of disregarding Congress and the laws it’s made. It’s not how governing should be done.

But neither is a philosophy of “no.” So we’re stuck – hopeful for a worthy program like ConnectEd, but uncomfortable with how it might be conceived. So it is with Washington. If only there were an app for gridlock.

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