This is an interesting time for public school administrators who work with the federally funded E-Rate program. In short, the E-Rate program provides considerable discounts to public schools toward the purchase of equipment and services that provide access to the Internet. It has just been announced that the E-Rate program will go through significant changes.
It is well known that virtually every public school across the United States has access to the Internet. What may not be known is that a great majority of these have limited access and need higher capacity. The changes in the E-Rate program are intended to increase the access capacity for these schools and to streamline the process for school administrators. Needless to say, these changes are welcomed by all parties involved.
Some of the major changes are listed below:
- Specific targets have been established and will be monitored for connectivity of schools
- Pricing will also be monitored to ensure a higher level of affordability
- $1 billion has been earmarked for the increase of wireless capabilities
- Provisions have been made so that funds can be transferred from one category of eligible services and equipment to another
- Previously funded services such as web hosting, email hosting, voicemail services, and other equipment will no longer be funded
- Funding for mobile device services will be conditional
- The requirement for a state-approved technology plan has been lifted
- The application process has been simplified, especially in the case of multiple-year contracts
- The bidding process for qualified broadband services has been eliminated
- All relevant documentation must be submitted electronically
- The timeline during which applications are reviewed and monies distributed to schools has been cut in half
There are other, more technical changes that are also being implemented. For the sake of brevity, I chose not to include these. Those wanting detailed information on these changes can go to www.usac.org.
It should be noted that the E-Rate program has been very successful. Many public schools have taken advantage of this program to greatly enhance the infrastructure needed to provide students with access to the Internet.
It should also be noted that the E-Rate program is funded primarily by consumers of telephone services, both landline and cellular phones. I would expect that most consumers would approve of the pursuit of more cost-effective changes.
Speaking from firsthand experience, I can attest to the need for streamlining the application and reimbursement process. Presently, it is common for public school districts to receive reimbursement for eligible services or equipment a year after applying.
I definitely agree with the elimination of the technology plan requirement. Although I think it is important for every public school district to have a technology plan, I did not see the E-Rate technology plan approval process as effective. At times, it seemed to be more of a rote process.
Obviously, there are those who may not agree with some of the changes. As an example, I know of many districts that currently fund their district websites with E-Rate reimbursements. Local monies will now need to be identified so that the websites can be maintained.
I would argue that, the changes, which will take effect in about a year, are reasonable. Of course, the E-Rate program will be continually evaluated and modified to be as effective as possible.
As with any federal program, there will always be issues related to the E-Rate program. Again, I think the E-rate program has been and continues to be a good program for public schools.