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'E-Rate' Program's Imminent Launch Has Educators High on Technology

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As the launch of the federal "E-rate" program draws near, education technology experts are full of enthusiasm for what will be an unprecedented effort to speed the telecommunications revolution to schools and libraries.

"This is one of the most potentially powerful programs we've had available to us," said Hilary Cowan, the director of technology for the Kanawha County, W.Va., schools. "It's difficult to implement and fraught with problems and frustrations, but in terms of what it can do for kids it's tremendously powerful."

Authorized under the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996, the "education rate" program will offer up to $2.25 billion in discounts per year on a wide range of telecommunications services that schools and libraries plan to use for instruction.

Some supporters compare the program to the federal land grants that helped establish many state colleges in the late 1800s and to the GI Bill that helped World War II veterans get a college education. They say it will enable many schools--especially high-poverty and rural ones--to use the Internet in their classrooms, not just in the principal's office, and will give them the wherewithal to invest more heavily in the computers, instructional software, and training needed to use technology well.

Schools and libraries will apply for the discounts by mail or through a World Wide Web site administered by the nonprofit Schools and Libraries Corp., which was set up by the Federal Communications Commission.

The SLC was user-testing its Web site late last week, and officials expect to launch it shortly, possibly this week. That event will signal the start of the application period.

Court Case Pending

The E-rate discounts will range from 20 percent to 90 percent of the cost of services and products such as Internet access, classroom wiring, networking equipment, and telephones. The deepest discounts will go to rural schools and libraries and those serving the largest share of low-income students--measured by the percentage of students eligible for the federal free lunch program.

Starting next month, all companies that provide interstate telecommunications services will pay monthly levies into the fund.

To participate in the program, every state has set up its own, similar discounts financed by taxes on telephone traffic within its borders.

Judy Miller, the state coordinator for the E-rate for Colorado, said she's been flooded with calls about the program from her state's rural areas. "I keep getting comments from schools and libraries--'Is this really going to happen? This is the only way we can go forward.'"

But some critics say the discounts are unnecessary and warn that they will lead to higher phone bills for consumers. Some telephone companies, in fact, plan to list a separate charge for the E-rate on their bills to customers.

In an column in The Washington Post last month, James K. Glassman, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, decried the program. "What is the federal government doing in this business anyway?" he wrote. "Education is the ultimate local issue. If states want to spend money on Internet hook-ups, let them use their own tax dollars."

A number of phone companies and state public utility commissions have filed several court challenges to the program that have been consolidated in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, based in New Orleans. The numerous parties involved have yet to file arguments in the case, but several are contending that it is unfair to let companies draw from the fund if they did not contribute to it, and that the FCC exceeded its authority in providing discounts for internal connections in buildings.

'Some Wrinkles' Ahead

Meanwhile, the Schools and Libraries Corp., which hired its first employee on Nov. 1, has quickly geared up to help school and library officials and vendors understand the application process.

As might be expected with a newborn program, educators around the country have many different levels of knowledge about the E-rate, said Debra Kriete, a lawyer for the SLC.

The corporation will conduct outreach efforts and rely on knowledgeable state officials and even vendors to get the word out, Ms. Kriete said.

SLC officials also said that the start-up of the program may have rough spots, but that they would work hard to keep communication flowing. The SLC will continue to issue "administrative interpretations" of the E-rate rules, including a list of eligible technologies, and post them on its Web site, Ms. Kriete said.

"This is a tremendous new program. Something of this size is not going to get started without some wrinkles," said Lynne Bradley, the deputy executive director of the American Library Association's Washington office.

"This is the most wonderful opportunity if we give it a chance to grow," agreed Jackie Shrago, Tennessee's school technology director. "It's important for everybody to take a bit of risk to see what we can make of it."

States Taking the Lead

There is some debate over how ready schools are to apply for the discounts.

Steve Kohn, an executive at Bell Atlantic Corp., said he doubts that schools can actually spend enough this year to reach the $2.25 billion cap.

He estimated that schools spent a maximum of $2 billion on telecommunications in 1996. To reach the cap this year, vendors would have to provide schools with an estimated $4.5 billion worth of telecommunications services.

But Ms. Shrago of Tennessee said her nationwide projection suggests that schools can spend that amount usefully this year, providing they can navigate the application process.

Her state, like a number of others, isn't taking chances in leaving schools and districts by themselves.

Tennessee invited its 138 districts to apply as a consortium for many eligible services, and all but one have chosen to take part, Ms. Shrago said. The joint applications, which may total $20 million in discounts, will include voice-mail and long-distance phone service and cellular and paging services.

It's more effective for state officials to learn the fine points of applying "instead of trying to communicate to 1,000 people what they'd need to understand on the forms," Ms. Shrago said.

Tennessee will even complete schools' paperwork for services that can't be done jointly, such as for installing wiring in old schools or new construction. "We'll complete [the forms], and they'll sign them," Ms. Shrago said.

She added that Kentucky, Utah, and West Virginia are also organizing joint applications.

Where Will Savings Go?

One issue that observers will watch closely is whether E-rate recipients plow their savings into other facets of educational technology, such as teacher training, computers, and instructional software. No legal requirement--other than commitments made in the applications--bars schools from spending the savings on teacher salaries or other priorities.

Some state technology officials worry that local school boards might find it compelling, for example, to use the savings to rehire laid-off teachers.

Advocates of the program say that failing to reinvest the money in technology could dilute the effectiveness of the E-rate and endanger its future.

"We expect that Congress and others that are going to scrutinize this, are going to look at the impact: Is there access where there was not access before?" said Carolyn Breedlove, a lobbyist for the National Education Association.

Congress has ordered the fcc to report on the progress of the E-rate program by April 30. An FCC advisory board will undertake a full review of the program in 2002.

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