Amidst all the exciting discussions of how to deepen student learning with digital and online tools is a much less exciting, but equally important question about how to schools pay for the expensive infrastructure like bandwidth, wireless networks, and basic internet connections central to new teaching methods. The federal government recognized this need in 1996 when the internet was in its infancy, creating the Universal Service Program for Schools and Libraries, or E-rate, to help schools and libraries connect to the internet. The program funds the connectivity needs of the majority of public schools and libraries.
Now, the Federal Communications Commission is working to rewrite the E-rate program guidelines to better suit the emerging needs of today’s school environment. The changes are welcome news to harried school technology experts tasked with estimating a school’s needs more than a year in advance and applying for federal funds through the cumbersome E-rate application process.
In 2013, the program had $2.4 billion dollars to give out and received requests totaling $4.9 billion. “Demand has exceeded the E-rate cap every year since the program's inception,” notes the FCC’s website on E-rate basics.
Given the success of the E-rate program in getting internet connections to schools around the country and the increasing need for technology in classrooms, many educators would like to see the program funded at higher levels. “It is simply insufficient to meet school and library demands 15 years later,” Calcasieu Parish Chief Technology Officer Sheryl Abshire told a Senate committee recently. “In my opinion we need a permanent increase in funding.” Despite these calls, the first draft of the new regulations does not indicate there will be more funds.
Instead, the FCC has started by focusing on streamlining the existing program to better use currently available funds. “There’s a real recognition that using the current pricing models, it’s very difficult to achieve the President’s goals of getting all these students connected at the speeds they want,” said John Harrington, CEO of Funds for Learning, an e-rate consulting company. His business helps school districts wade through the paperwork and reporting requirements for e-rate applications. “It’s very frustrating to watch schools get funded for only half a project,” he said when describing his wish to see the program improved.
One way the FCC hopes to improve the program’s cost effectiveness is to help schools buy in bulk, organizing group purchasing agreements. Harrington also thinks there are ways to build cost-savings incentives into the program. High on his list is doing away with the priority system that dominates E-rate funding.
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. Requests for computer wiring needed to connect classrooms to the internet or wireless networks would be considered a second-tier priority. 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.
“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,” Harrington said. He’s especially worried that if the new regulations are too prescriptive, they won’t move with the pace of technological innovation.
Another big theme of the FCC rewrite is to streamline the application process and get funds out to schools much more quickly. “That by itself will be revolutionary,” Harrington said. Right now, schools can wait up to a year and a half to find out if they will receive the funds requested, making it hard to plan and rollout new initiatives like a one-to-one tablet or computer program.
The FCC is also focused on collecting more comprehensive data on how E-rate funds are being used by schools. While the grants given out are documented, there’s no good way to know just how connected a school is or how various programs are being deployed.
Lastly, the FCC is trying to move the whole process online. Right now, some parts of the E-rate application must be filed on paper, a throwback to 1996 when legislators wanted to ensure that schools without internet access could apply to get it. Now, that concern is less pertinent and digitizing the application process will speed up processing times and hopefully ease the burden of applying.
President Obama has directed the FCC to move forward with the rule-making process, but this first draft is not official. In fact, the FCC lays out several ways some of the big questions could be addressed and is soliciting feedback from educators on how to best improve the program.
Still, the goal is to finish reworking the program by the end of the year so the new guidelines can be used in the next funding round. After that, perhaps E-rate advocates will pursue additional funding from Congress to bolster the important program.