Obama's plan to raise taxes for Internet in schools: A "no-brainer"?

One idea that we’re sure to hear about when President Obama once again goes bus-touring next week, this time on behalf of education, is “ConnectEd” — the White House’s new initiative to expand high-speed Internet access in schools across the country and paying for it by directing the Federal Communications Commission to raise ‘fees’ (ahem, taxes) on cell-phone users. Republicans have criticized the idea as an imposition on consumers and another of Obama’s attempts to skirt Congress, while Democrats are hailing the proposal as a potentially major second-term achievement. Via WaPo:

The White House on Wednesday called a $4-6 billion proposal to expand high-speed Internet access to 99 percent of schools a “no-brainer,” but said the idea ultimately requires approval by the independent Federal Communications Commission.

…White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the program is part of the agenda of expanding economic opportunity that has been the focus of presidential trips and speeches this summer.

“A quality education is a key component of that,” he said. “So with a relatively modest investment, we could connect 99 percent of schools all across the country to the Internet, and that would expand educational opportunities for students in a really important way.” …

“We have seen a little dysfunction in Congress. You would think that connecting schools to the information superhighway would be a pretty non-controversial topic,” Earnest said. “Unfortunately, we haven’t seen a lot of action in Congress, so the president has advocated an administrative, unilateral action to get this done.”

So, President Obama simply wants to charge cell-phone users an extra $5 or so a year to provide Internet access for public school children. Hey, we can totally afford that, for the children — sounds pretty innocuous, right? Hmmmm.

It’s all too easy to commandeer what looks like the moral high ground with claims of, “it’s just a few dollars, and it’s for a good cause!” — but where does that mightily convenient but intellectually bankrupt reasoning end? Republicans too often allow themselves to be branded as the party of “no,” because Democrats do a pretty good job of making it sound like Republicans just must not care about the children when they oppose this sort of thing, or the hungry when they propose cuts to the food stamp program, or the poor when they oppose tax hikes on the wealthy, blah blah blah.

The problem, however, is not only that those ‘mere’ $5 or so have real opportunity costs out in the real world and real consequences for families, but that these type of initiatives on such a massive scale have too huge a potential for waste, fraud, abuse, and general mega-inefficiency and convolution. This is a perfect example of something that could and should be happening on a much smaller scale: Why not allow the states, even local governments, to determine whether they want to raise taxes to set up high-speed Internet access in their school districts, and spur competition and innovation with more focused programs instead of imposing a top-down bureaucratic nightmare that reliably comes with heavy unintended consequences and is slow to readjust in the event or error?

What’s more, there’s yet another example here of Democrats trying to fix symptoms instead of curing the disease: Enhanced Internet access is going to mean little in districts that cannot even afford computers and the relevant technology, not to mention the utility bills. As nice as it might sound on the surface, the root problems there concerning the economy, government budgets, and education policy are not something that more Internet access is going to fix.