Established in 1997, E-Rate is the largest single source of educational technology funding in the United States. With commitments of more than $2.25 billion annually, the program has been a resounding success, enabling schools to stretch their budgets for mission-critical broadband and connectivity services.
And yet, the program is at a crossroads. In funding year 2013 (July 2013 to June 2014), demand for Priority 1 services alone exceeded the program's annual funding cap for the second consecutive year. Thanks to funds that rolled over from previous years, the program can fund all compliant Priority 1 applications for funding year 2013, but the availability of funds for Priority 2 services is in jeopardy.
In June, President Obama announced ConnectED, an initiative that aims to connect 99 percent of our students to the Internet through high-speed broadband and wireless access in five years. He also has called on the Federal Communications Commission to modernize the E-Rate program to help meet this goal.
The FCC responded in July by releasing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that takes a comprehensive look at E-Rate, asking questions about the program's structure and processes. "E-Rate 2.0" is coming, and in a year or two, the program could look much different.
In the meantime, schools and libraries must begin preparing for the upcoming funding year's application cycle. Here are some mistakes to avoid when applying for 2014 funds.
1. Don't procrastinate.
Time management is crucial. The E-Rate program has numerous deadlines, which can vary from year to year or project to project.
When planning your applications, consider how much time it will take to gather the required information. Do you need to prepare a request for proposals? When are your school board meetings scheduled? Will administrative staff be taking time off for the holidays?
A well-planned process timeline can alleviate stress and reduce mistakes made in haste. Plus, as a general rule, applications that are submitted early in the filing window have a much better chance of being reviewed and approved in earlier funding waves.
2. Don't operate alone.
E-Rate applications require data and documentation that cross a number of departments in a typical district. Procurement, IT, food services and top-level administrators are likely to be involved with the information submitted on the application, so it's important for everyone to understand their role in the process.
A successful applicant also has a coordinated interdepartmental communication plan so that any information needed for the application (and subsequent review) flows quickly and accurately. The internal E-Rate coordinator in each school or district should brief colleagues on the specifics of the application so they can answer questions in the coordinator's absence.
3. Don't neglect the details.
Correcting mistakes on E-Rate applications can be time-consuming and difficult. Inventory the eligible services you're currently receiving, planned future upgrades and new purchases, and the terms and conditions of existing multiyear contracts to ensure that discounts on all eligible services are requested.
Remember to include any relevant charges for eligible services — taxes and fees; shipping charges; initial setup, activation and installation charges; and other eligible charges — in your funding requests.
4. Don't fail to document.
Following the rules — and being able to prove it — is crucial.
Over the years, we've seen countless E-Rate participants concern themselves only with getting the money. But focusing solely on the funding commitment neglects a significant E-Rate reality: If you fail to demonstrate compliance, funds can be retroactively denied and repayment requested — sometimes many years after the commitment was originally issued.
Keep E-Rate records in a neatly organized, accessible format by funding year. Also, document institutional knowledge and explanations of decision-making processes throughout the application cycle.
5. Don't assume.
Making assumptions about the rules and how program administrators interpret them can be disastrous. Instead, take advantage of available training resources and ask questions. The program administrator offers training sessions and materials each fall, and state E-Rate coordinators or independent consultants also can help shed light on gray areas and prevent mistakes.