Obama calling for federal money to help bring 'digital learning' to America's classrooms

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama wants to see the nation’s classrooms transformed into digital learning centres and he is ready to ask federal regulators to use billions of dollars to pay for the broadband and high-speed Internet connections that will be needed to make it happen.

During a stop Thursday in Mooresville, N.C., Obama was expected to call on the Federal Communications Commission to use a program that funds Internet access in schools and libraries to bring these faster connections to 99 per cent of students within five years.

Obama was visiting Mooresville Middle School, just north of Charlotte, to highlight the positive transformation that has taken place there in the few years since the school district’s new superintendent began providing laptop computers to all students.

How to pay for the program would be up to the FCC. One option would be for the agency to use savings in its E-Rate program, which funds Internet access in schools and libraries through a surcharge on telephone bills, said a senior administration official. Another option would be for the agency to impose a new, temporary surcharge of about $5 per year on phone bills, the official said.

The FCC has the authority to make changes to the program on its own and would not need Congress to approve.

The official estimated it would cost at least several billion dollars to bring faster Internet connections to schools. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be quoted by name discussing the proposal before Obama announces it.

A fact sheet distributed by the White House said faster, school-based Internet access can bring interactive, individualized learning to millions of students who struggle to connect at slower speeds. Less than 20 per cent of teachers say their school’s Internet connection meets their needs.

Administration officials cited a need for the U.S. to catch up to other countries, such as its ally South Korea, where all schools have high-speed Internet access, teachers are trained in digital learning and plans call for eliminating printed textbooks by 2016.

Thursday’s event in the heart of North Carolina’s NASCAR country is part of a broader White House effort to recalibrate a second term that so far has seen more controversies than legislative victories. The strategy centres on casting the president as focused on expanding the middle class and portraying Republicans, who haven’t embraced his calls for new spending, as mired in politically motivated investigations.

This week, Obama has or will hold events on mental health and gun control, education and health care. Next week he’ll make a rare public push for overhauling the nation’s immigration laws, an issue he has largely ceded to Congress.

Before departing later this month on separate trips to Europe and Africa, Obama plans to hold more events on the economic recovery as the White House tries to balance touting improvements in the jobs forecast and the housing market with the economic woes still troubling many Americans.

Students in the Mooresville district, where 40 per cent of the kids receive free or reduced-price lunch, use laptop computers. Those in kindergarten through third grade use them only at school; students in higher grades have them all day, seven days a week. The idea to distribute laptops came from Mark Edwards, who this year was named national superintendent of the year by the American Association of School Administrators.

Since Edwards came aboard in 2007, a district that ranks near the bottom in North Carolina in funding per pupil now has the second-best test scores and third-best graduation rates, according to the school administrators’ association.

Obama’s stop in North Carolina, his first this year in the state where he accepted the Democratic presidential nomination at his party’s convention in Charlotte last September, marks the start of an excursion that will keep the president out of the White House — and away from Washington controversies — through the weekend.

After North Carolina, Obama was flying to Northern California to headline a pair of fundraisers in San Jose for Democratic Senate candidates.

On Friday, he’s scheduled to discuss what his health care law means for Californians before heading to Los Angeles for a Democratic National Committee fundraiser. The trip ends after private meetings Friday night and Saturday with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Sunnylands, a sprawling desert estate in Rancho Mirage that boasts sweeping mountain views and a lush golf course. It was built by billionaire philanthropists Walter and Leonore Annenberg.


AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace contributed to this report.