The E-rate program is a "dazzling success"! Or it’s an "Enron-style" financial scandal! As usual, it depends on who you ask and your definition of success and scandal.

E-rate is the federal program that adds a tax to your phone bill and then uses the funds to help needy schools and libraries get connected to the Internet. Since it started in 1998, the fee has generated $12.9 billion and has resulted in "near universal Internet access" for American public schools.

So what’s wrong with that? Plenty according to Todd Oppenheimer, a long-time critic of computers in the classroom. In his article from The Nation, he points out that along with Internet access came millions of dollars of fraud and overcharges by a variety of companies that lined up to take advantage of school systems anxious to spend the money. Beyond that he says that the need for schools to connect to the Internet based on hype not instructional need.

While I disagree with much of what Oppenheimer has written over the years (especially in his current book The Flickering Mind), in this case he is right on target. The political sound byte of the 90’s which claimed that we needed to get every school connected to the Internet left out two important pieces. First, the politicians failed to outline a valid educational purpose. Few people seemed to be asking how access to the Internet was going to improve teaching and learning. Despite Oppenheimer’s claim that there are almost no valid reasons for having computers in the classroom, much less the Internet, there are many ways a network connection can be used. But not in all curriculums and not all the time.

The second important part of the equation that was left out along the way is teacher training. In implementing the e-rate, emphasis was totally on getting the boxes and wires in place. Forgotten was the fact that few teachers had any idea of how to use these new tools and very little conception of the power they would be getting. As with computers themselves, it makes no sense to put an Internet connection into a classroom where it won’t be used or, worse, where it will be misused.