Obama to Push Plan Expanding Web Connections for Students

President Barack Obama directed the federal government to expand high-speed Internet access to 99 percent of U.S. students in five years, continuing his effort to push his second-term economic agenda using executive action.

Speaking at a North Carolina middle school, Obama said he’s ordered the Federal Communications Commission to equip schools with broadband Internet, saying faster online access will improve educational outcomes and make American students more competitive globally.

“In our country where we expect free wi-fi with our coffee, why can’t we expect that in our schools,” he said, speaking to students and teachers in the Mooresville Middle School gym.

The stop was one in a series of visits across the country designed to showcase the president’s second-term economic agenda -- major pieces of which have faced resistance from Congress -- and offer less-sweeping proposals that don’t require congressional action.

Among those is the so-called ConnectED update, designed to use existing federal money to increase connectivity in classrooms and improve technology training for teachers.

Bypassing Congress

“For those of you who follow politics in Washington, here’s the best news -- none of this requires an act of Congress,” Obama told the cheering audience. “We can and we will get started right away.”

Millions of U.S. students lack access to high-speed broadband and less than 20 percent of educators say their school’s Internet connection meets teaching needs, according to the White House.

The plan would modernize the FCC’s existing E-rate program, which is funded by a charge on telephone subscribers’ bills and helps schools and libraries pay for telecommunications links, including broadband.

If more money is needed, White House aides said a temporary fee of less than $5 annually would be added to broadband subscribers’ Internet bills. That fee would increase an existing charge and wouldn’t require congressional approval, said the aides who spoke on the condition that they not be identified in discussing the proposal. Officials wouldn’t specify a total cost for the program.

Competitive Edge

Administration officials said faster online connectivity is necessary to keep U.S. students competitive with countries such as South Korea, where every school has high-speed Internet.

“This is a huge deal for education for years to come,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters today. “Technology is a game changer.”

At Mooresville Middle School, part of an education district known nationally for its digital-learning program, Obama toured a classroom and watched students present their online math and reading projects.

“This is like Schoolhouse Rock,” he said, referring to a musical television series teaching subjects such as math, science and history. The president watched a video presentation the students created online using digital tools.

The North Carolina school district hands a laptop to every child in grades four to 12, offers special teacher technology training, and uses a predominantly digital curriculum.

The stop came before Obama heads west to Sunnylands, a sprawling California desert estate near Palm Springs, for two days of informal talks with new Chinese president Xi Jinping. The high-profile, “shirt-sleeves” summit is designed to establish a more personal rapport between the leaders of the world’s biggest economies.

Overshadowed Plans

Over the past month, Obama has been making brief trips around the country to press proposals he outlined at the start of his second term and that have been overshadowed by controversies. Those include scrutiny the IRS gave to Tea Party-aligned groups and the administration’s handling of last year’s deadly attack on a U.S. facility in Benghazi, Libya.

The president said in his annual speech to Congress on Feb. 12 that lawmakers should be guided by the goal of strengthening the economy, creating middle-income jobs, and training students for the careers of the future. Along with raising the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour, he proposed making preschool available to all 4-year-olds, and asked for $50 billion in infrastructure spending.

Republican lawmakers met the three proposals with immediate resistance, saying they were too costly.

2014 Elections

With passage of his major initiatives in doubt, the president is facing questions about whether he has the political clout to push through his priorities before the focus in Congress turns entirely to the 2014 midterm elections. He failed earlier this year to persuade lawmakers to expand background checks for gun buyers and halt automatic cuts in federal spending, known as sequestration.

In traveling to North Carolina, the president returned to the state that hosted the 2012 Democratic National Convention. After winning its electoral votes in the 2008 election, he narrowly lost there in November to Republican Mitt Romney. Next year, incumbent Democratic Senator Kay Hagan must defend her seat in the tightly contested state.

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