WASHINGTON – President Obama is speeding up his pet project to connect American public schools to the Internet through an unusual combination of government investment and contributions from the private sector.
On a stepped-up time frame, Obama is expected to announce Tuesday that the government plans to make digital learning available to 20 million students and more than 15,000 schools over the next two years – more quickly than originally anticipated when Obama launched "ConnectED" last year.
The expedited plan comes courtesy of $2 billion that the Federal Communications Commission is immediately directing to this purpose, according to senior administration officials who have been working on the private-public partnership over the last year. The money comes from surcharges on the telecommunications industry to support schools and libraries.
At the same time, several companies are committing to help by spending $750 million on new iPads and laptops as well as wireless service and software, especially for low-income students and struggling schools with little to no Internet access. Apple, Microsoft, AT&T, Verizon and Sprint are among the companies making the contributions in products and services.
The donations are meant to have a "multiplier effect" on the targeted schools, said Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council for Obama. Many students, for instance, need working laptops before they can make use of the broadband access the program is designed to provide.
"It's quite safe to say that millions and millions of young people will be affected," said Sperling. "Everything announced here is going to have a stronger impact because of its cumulative effect."
Sperling called the investment a "down payment" on a program whose goal is to bring 99% of public school students online in the next five years.
The development is the most vivid example to date of the "pen and phone" strategy the president has adopted for a second term to take action on his own when he doesn't expect a lot of cooperation from Congress. Even if he can't pass legislation, aides say, he can still rally business and community leaders to worthwhile causes.
Apple executives have pledged to give $100 million in iPads, MacBooks and other products to disadvantaged schools, according to the White House. AT&T says it will provide $100 million in mobile broadband services over three years for middle school students. Autodesk, designer of software for design, drafting and engineering, is offering software, curricula and training worth about $250 million.
Meanwhile, Obama will be able to increase government spending on the ConnectED program because the FCC, an independent commission, decided to more quickly disburse money already intended to build capacity for high-speed Internet and for training educators on emerging technology.
"As we consider long-term improvements to the program," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a statement on the commission's website, "we will take immediate steps to make existing funds go further, significantly increasing our investment in high-speed Internet to help connect millions of students to the digital age."