Aug 09 2013

Here’s Your Chance to Help Rewrite the E-Rate

FCC looks for advice on how to reposition its multibillion-dollar K–12 technology funding program.

Since its inception in 1996, at a time when many schools didn’t yet have computers, much less the high-speed Internet access we often take for granted today, the federal E-Rate program has doled out billions to give students at the nation’s struggling and low-income schools the benefit of a connected education.

In 2013, the E-Rate program distributed more than $2.4 billion to needy schools. That sounds like a lot of money. But is it enough? That same year, the FCC reportedly received more than $4.9 billion in requests for eligible E-Rate programs and services. 

Writing for the education blog MindShift, Katrina Schwartz details recent efforts to reposition the program to meet the changing needs of America’s K–12 schools.

Could this mean more funding?

Given the increasingly austere mentality of policymakers in Washington, experts say program administrators aren’t likely to push for an increase in funding, though the latest version of the proposed rules leaves the door open. 

Rather Schwartz says the FCC is focused on streamlining the program to make better use of the money it has.

So, how are administrators planning to change E-Rate?

For starters, Schwartz says the FCC will reconsider the priority-based funding structure of the program.  

“When the federal program was set up in the late ’90s the chief goal was to provide connectivity to all schools, so telecommunications, telecommunications services and Internet connections got first priority and the neediest schools got higher discounts,” explains Schwartz. 

But the wired landscape has changed. While most schools are connected to the Internet, many still don’t have the wiring or bandwidth needed to fully embrace the benefits of high-speed access. 

“With current technology, many schools need these second-tier infrastructure upgrades badly, and in some cases the first priority projects are no longer the most cost-effective or appropriate way to achieve universal connectivity,” writes Schwartz.

But that’s not all.

While changes to the program’s outdated priority funding structure stand to have the most impact, Schwartz says the commission is also considering a number of other changes designed to make applying for and receiving E-Rate funds easier.

The commission is reportedly working on group purchasing agreements, which should help more schools buy in bulk, thus reducing equipment costs and saving money.

The FCC is also considering ways to streamline the application so that schools receive funds more quickly, writes Schwartz. Under the current agreement, schools can wait up to a year to find out whether their applications have been approved, which makes planning tough.

Beyond that, officials say they are considering moving the E-Rate application process entirely online — portions are still conducted via snail mail — and collecting better data from schools and applicants about how the funds are used. 

John Harrington, CEO of Funds for Learning, whose consulting firm works with schools to navigate the program’s regulations, told Schwartz he’s looking forward to the changes. 

“The key is to have an eligible services framework that’s broad enough, provides some guidelines, but doesn’t hard wire or define it so much that it’s tied down to one type of technology,” he said.

Want to tell the FCC rule makers what you think about proposed changes to the program? You can weigh in on these elements and more through Sept. 16.

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