Elvis and the E-Rate: How Bill Clinton Ensured School Access to the Internet

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

September 21, 2015

By Charles Barone and Marianne Lombardo 

This blog is Part 5 of ERN’s “Presidents and Education” Series

bc elvis heads

K-12 education policy junkies came away jonesing from last week’s GOP Presidential debate, where the best buzz they could scrape together came from a mere reference or two to “Common Core” and “school choice.” When it comes to Presidential policy debates, education is the 12-year-old who grown-ups allow a sip or two of wine at the dinner table on special occasions.

See ERN’s “Presidents and Education” series Part 1: Common Core Debate is Mostly Theater

Presidents, nonetheless, make important decisions about education. Whether we get there or not in the 2016 campaign, the policies – or lack thereof – put forth by POTUS 45 will have important ramifications for the next generation of students and educators. In this, the fifth entry in our “Presidents and Education” series, we take a look at how President William Jefferson spearheaded what has become known as the “E-rate,” a program that has provided billions of dollars to help schools access the Internet.

See ERN’s “Presidents and Education” Part 2: “ESEA Disaggregation, Cross-tabbing & Politics”


Not a month into office, President Clinton announced a strategy to build a national information infrastructure. Much as the telephone had been commercially available for over 50 years before it was made universal by FDR, Clinton didn’t want decades to pass before all Americans could benefit from modern communications technology.

As such, he established an advisory council, to be chaired by Vice President Gore, to produce recommendations. It ultimately suggested expanding the traditional notion of “universal [telephone] service” to include providing every citizen access to the “information superhighway.” In the short-term, community-based institutions that serve the public, such as schools and libraries, should be the starting point.[1]

The “digital divide” was real. As President Clinton said:[2]

[T]oday, affluent schools are almost three times as likely to have Internet access in the classroom; white students are more than twice as likely as black students to have computers in their homes. We can extend opportunity to all Americans or leave many behind. We can erase lines of inequity or etch them indelibly.

Clinton and Gore faced a huge political backlash. Telecommunications companies, for whom the Internet arguably became the biggest indirect government subsidy in history, balked at anything that required them to help cover the costs of educational access for public education. Pundits pronounced that the legislation needed to enact the E-rate would never survive. At one point, Rep. Michael Oxley [R-OH] declared the effort as “dead as Elvis.”[3]

See ERN’s “Presidents and Education” Series Part 3: “A Nation at Risk”

Nevertheless, Clinton and Gore prevailed. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 passed by huge bipartisan margins — 91 to 5 in the Senate[4] and 414 to 16 in House.[5] Now the Administration faced its next big challenge – implementation – and the high stakes involved for schools and students.

The following spring, the U.S. Departments of Commerce, Education and Agriculture came together to propose a system of discounted education rates, or “E-Rates,” for schools and libraries. The day before the deadline, the FCC ultimately endorsed a modified version of that plan. Long distance companies quickly filed a lawsuit claiming this was an “illegal tax.” Sens. McCain (R-AZ), Stevens, (R-AK) and Hollings (D-SC), among others, charged the FCC had exceeded its authority.

The Administration plowed ahead anyway. In January 1998, it opened up the first round of E-Rate applications. Thirty thousand applicants requested $2 billion in discounts. As a form of retribution, that summer, AT&T, Sprint and MCI announced they would impose a “universal service charge” on consumer phone bills. Politics were making the elimination of E-Rate a real possibility.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) rightly framed this argument as a “classic fight between the huge telecommunication companies in this country, their ability to lobby, their ability to pay money, their ability to intimidate, their ability to have things their ways, which they have always gotten in the past, versus something called the school children of America.”[6]

See ERN’s “Presidents and Education” Series Part 4: “Bill Clinton, George W. Bush & ESEA Accountability

Not unlike Obamacare, Clinton’s E-Rate gained traction as more and more Americans benefitted from it. By March 1999, 40,000 schools had received $1.7 billion in E-Rate funding. In April, a second round of applications opened, ultimately wiring an additional 528,000 classrooms.[7] Now that money was flowing, E-Rate found wide support. Not only was the education community enthusiastically on board, but the US Conference of Mayors and 87 percent of the public expressed great support.[8] The tide had turned, critics retreated, and the program survived.

clinton e-rate


President Bill Clinton had the vision and the fortitude to withstand political fights, in order to advance 21st century technologies in an equitable way. Under his administration, support for education technology increased by 3,000 percent, and Internet access in public schools went from 35 percent in 1994 to 95 percent in 1999.[9] By 2001, 99 percent of schools had access.[10]

Under a different President, the E-Rate would have been dead on arrival. Thanks to President Clinton, every student can now connect to the global world, access information, and watch videos of the immortal Elvis Presley.


[1] http://cct.edc.org/sites/cct.edc.org/files/publications/erate_tfc00.pdf

[2] http://www.techlawjournal.com/telecom/80608clin.htm

[3] ibid

[4] http://www.senate.gov/legislative/LIS/roll_call_lists/roll_call_vote_cfm.cfm?congress=104&session=2&vote=00008

[5] http://clerk.house.gov/evs/1996/roll025.xml

[6] http://www.techlawjournal.com/agencies/slc/80605pc.htm

[7] http://cct.edc.org/sites/cct.edc.org/files/publications/erate_tfc00.pdf

[8] ibid

[9] http://clinton5.nara.gov/WH/Accomplishments/eightyears-01.html

[10] https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2002/internet/3.asp