MOORESVILLE, N.C. (AP) -- President Barack Obama called on federal regulators Thursday to help turn the nation's classrooms into digital learning centers by equipping schools with broadband and high-speed Internet connections at a cost of several billion dollars.
Obama says a new initiative called ConnectED would mean faster Internet connections for 99 percent of students within five years.
"We are living in a digital age, and to help our students get ahead, we must make sure they have access to cutting-edge technology," Obama said in a written statement before he arrived at a middle school just north of Charlotte, N.C., where the president was expected to highlight improvements there since students began using laptops for schoolwork.
Obama called on the Federal Communications Commission to use an existing program that funds Internet access in schools and libraries through a surcharge on telephone bills to meet his goal. He also directed the government to do a better job of using existing funds to get Internet connections and educational technology into classrooms, and into the hands of teachers who know how to use it.
The FCC has the authority to make changes to the program on its own and would not need Congress to approve. One option for raising the several billion dollars needed for the program would be for the agency to impose a new, temporary surcharge on phone bills, administration officials said.
The White House said faster, school-based Internet access can bring interactive, individualized learning to millions of students, and help them get the skills they need to get good jobs. Less than 20 percent 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.
"Some people ask if technology is going to replace teachers," Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters aboard Air Force One. "That's not ever going to happen. The answer is always great teachers."
Thursday's event in Mooresville, 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 centers 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 held 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 percent 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.
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