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School Groups Join Forces in Quest of Telecomm Discounts

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The bulky Telecommunications Act of 1996 may someday introduce children in rural Montana to libraries in Paris and art museums in Istanbul.

But even as federal regulators hammer out the details, the new law has made some unlikely connections. The act is joining private school and public school backers and teaming teachers' unions and school boards' groups in a common pursuit: obtaining deep discounts on telecommunication services for schools and libraries.

The effort to influence the Federal Communications Commission as it makes rules putting the law into effect is a rare instance of cooperation for many of those groups--especially in the midst of the current election-year debate on vouchers, school choice, and the relative vices and virtues of organized labor.

"On many other issues we're at loggerheads with each other," acknowledged Frank Withrow, the director of learning-technology programs at the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Cooperation is possible because the act's benefits for schools and libraries come not from government subsidies, but from federally mandated discounts in services from telecommunication companies. Unlike on issues such as school vouchers, the groups won't be competing for tax dollars. The groups agree that one voice adds clout.

"It'd be difficult for any one of us individually to be successful," said Michelle Richards of the National School Boards Association's office of advocacy. "The telecommunications industry has been lobbying the FCC for years. This is a world the schools and libraries have not lived in that long."

The Education and Library Networks Coalition, or EdLiNC, now represents some 35 organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers, the National Association of Independent Schools, the National Education Association, and the U.S. Catholic Conference.

Defining Affordability

The Telecommunications Act seeks to restructure competition among companies moving from a market primarily offering telephone service to one providing a dizzying array of fiber-optic, satellite, and wireless communications options.

Congress included a provision that schools and libraries receive services "at rates less than the amounts charged for similar services for other parties."

Educators hope that guarantee has as broad an impact as a 1934 telecommunications law that helped connect phone lines to most U.S. homes. By lowering the cost of adding new connections to classrooms, the new act promises to greatly expand use of the global Internet computer network.

Since the bill's passage, debate has focused on the FCC, where officials will determine how big the discount should be.

"The main issue has been the definition of affordability," said Carolyn Breedlove, a senior professional assistant for government relations at the NEA. "What providers see as affordable would not necessarily be what schools who are in great financial straits would see as affordable."

Recommendations from telecommunications companies include creating discount vouchers for schools and libraries to use in paying for hookups, or block-grant programs in which regional bodies would disburse funds to schools to help pay for services.

But EdLiNC's members are calling for a percentage discount that schools and libraries could apply to whatever services they needed. Fixing the discount value through vouchers or block grants would disadvantage poorer districts, they argue.

Swaying the FCC

Coalition members suggest the FCC might base the discount on either the price of services in highly competitive markets or establish a kind of wholesale price for schools and libraries.

"Schools shouldn't pay more than the competitive price, period," Ms. Richards said. "But that's not going to be enough, so there should be some additional discount."

The educators also want the FCC to apply discounts to all services available--from fiber optics to wireless communications--including the phone lines schools already use. And the group wants discounts on installing lines to each classroom, not just to school buildings.

The coalition is focusing on the FCC's joint board, which will deliver its discount plan by Nov. 8.

"It's been interesting working together," said Joe McTighe, the executive director of the Council for American Private Education. "When you think about it, we probably agree on a lot more about education than we disagree on."

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