The growing demand for Internet access in education, combined with tight school budgets, has left school leaders in an unusual predicament. Their students, teachers and community are counting on increased access to top-notch communications services. Yet the lagging economy has placed a significant strain on school budgets, limiting their ability to roll out sophisticated new web-based features and services.
Enter the E-Rate funding program (formally known as the Schools and Libraries Program of the Universal Service Fund). Since 1998, E-Rate has been supporting the communications networks that connect our students and teachers to the Internet. E-Rate has helped usher in a new educational ecosystem that includes personal learning environments, streaming video, “bring your own device” programs, social media, online learning management systems, parent–teacher portals and more.
Not surprisingly, demand for E-Rate discounts on telecommunications and Internet access has grown significantly since the program’s inception — from $1.4 billion in 1999 to $3.1 billion in 2011 (see Figure 1 at left), far exceeding the roughly $2.3 billion in annual E-Rate funding that’s currently available and making it less likely that your school will receive as much money in the future as it does today.
Playing to Win
The stakes couldn’t be much higher. The Internet and the use of technology continue to transform the education landscape, but much of that landscape depends on E-Rate–funded services. Because this increasing demand for E-Rate dollars makes it harder for schools to secure much-needed funding, one missed deadline or procedural lapse could result in a school losing its communications services, breaking its budget and jeopardizing the trust of its valued stakeholders.
Fortunately, there are steps that can be taken to reduce these risks and increase a school’s chances of securing funding. Here are five of them.
Step 1: Invest time and money.
E-Rate discounts are free for the asking, but there is a cost associated with preparing the applications and maintaining compliance with the program’s rules and regulations. Be prepared to invest time and money into receiving “free” discounts, as E-Rate paperwork and deadlines occur throughout the year.
At a minimum, a staff member will need to plan to dedicate a few hours each week (on average) to facilitating the process and, for a week or two out of the year, will need to focus full time on E-Rate. The more school sites you have and the more money you request, the more staff hours you will need.
Step 2: Keep in front of the trends.
A good E-Rate planning horizon starts at least 18 months out. This requires anticipating and then positioning your school ahead of the program changes.
Keep on top of the trends by monitoring reputable websites, electronic mailing lists and newsletters, and, when possible, send staff to reputable training events. (Your state E-Rate coordinator can tell you if an event is worth attending.)
Here are three current trends to plan for:
- On-campus community usage of E-Rate–funded services is supported. This means that parents and school neighbors can now come onsite and use school Internet access.
- Leased fiber-optic networks connecting school sites qualify for discounts. Schools can get higher data and Internet connection speeds at a lower cost per unit.
- High demand for telecommunications and Internet services is putting a squeeze on E-Rate funding for hardware purchases. Plan to buy on-campus networking infrastructure in 2012 or 2013 because there likely will be fewer E-Rate dollars for these types of purchases in 2014 and beyond.
Step 3: Seek professional consultation.
Designate a staff person to be responsible for preparing E-Rate paperwork and overseeing the process. But when questions arise, don’t be afraid to seek third-party professional help. Not every E-Rate application will require such assistance, but there are times when it can make a big difference.
In general, applications involving eight or more school sites or $50,000 or more in funding can benefit from the use of a consultant. But choose wisely — a poorly trained consultant can cost your school far more than his or her fee.
The E-Rate Management Professionals Association (E-mpa) is a nonprofit organization that promotes high standards of E-Rate knowledge, ethics and professional conduct among E-Rate consultants, who must certify their compliance with documented standards. E-mpa even offers a certification program for members.
If you have a complex scenario or are simply having difficulty keeping up with managing the process, consider looking to an E-mpa consultant for help.
Step 4: Educate, educate, educate.
Many school boards and superintendents haven’t been educated about the total expense associated with today’s connected learning environments. In 1999, the average school site used $685 per month for telecommunications and Internet access services (see Figure 2 at right). By 2011, that monthly figure had increased to $1,251. This trend is likely to continue.
With or without E-Rate funding, it’s critically important for school leaders to understand the true costs associated with providing these networks to users.
E-Rate applicants can budget and pay the full price for a service (and then seek reimbursement), or they can select discounted invoicing, in which they budget for only their discounted payment price. If a school chooses the latter option (budgeting only for its portion of the overall cost), it may fail to recognize the full cost of the service. For example, if a school is leasing a wide area network that costs $100,000 annually but budgets only $20,000 for it, it could potentially realize an $80,000 budget shortfall if its E-Rate application gets lost in the mail.
The most effective E-Rate applicants pay fully for their telecommunications and Internet services. This not only guards them against doomsday budget scenarios, it also provides them the opportunity to take E-Rate reimbursements and plug those dollars back into other educational technology expenditures.
Step 5: Stay the course.
The E-Rate funding cycle is a marathon, and you shouldn’t expect quick results. Assume from the outset that it will be two years from today before you start to see the true benefits of your work.