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Schools Scramble To Meet 'E-Rate' Deadline

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Joseph Salvati wasn't taking any chances with the New York City school district's application for federal "E-rate" discounts on telecommunications services and equipment.

Rather than sending it through the mail, Mr. Salvati took a plane to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and then drove a rental car 25 miles to the Schools and Libraries Corp.'s processing center in Iowa City to deliver it in person.

If all goes as planned, the trip will be well worth it: New York City schools have applied to the SLC for discounts totaling $60 million--likely the largest amount of any district in the country. The discounts would allow the majority of district schools to be wired for Internet access in seven classrooms, the library, and an administrative area.

Mr. Salvati, a special assistant to the chief information officer of the New York school board, said that when he turned over the application to a woman at the SLC, he felt "a sense of satisfaction that all that work was now in the hands of the people who would make it real."

Then he gave the woman a Big Apple pen.

Like thousands of other schools and districts, the 1 million-student New York City district submitted its application on or before April 15, the end of a 75-day window established by the Schools and Libraries Corp.

The SLC, created by the Federal Communications Commission to administer the E-rate program, has promised it will consider any applications submitted by April 15 as if they had all arrived on the same day.

Deliveries by personal courier are only one sign that educators are taking the E-rate program very seriously.

"The expectations of our members are extremely high," said Carolyn Breedlove, the senior telecommunications lobbyist for the National Education Association. "The state [education] people have managed to leverage tremendous resources. They've done bonding. They've leveraged money from state resources. It's all based on the foundation of the E-rate."

Funding Questions

To receive an E-rate--for education rate--discount, an applicant first has to submit Form 470, which summarizes a request for services or equipment.

Then the applicant has to turn in Form 471. That form, which Mr. Salvati was delivering last week, lists the contracts the applicant has signed with vendors.

But there is much uncertainty among educators that the money to pay for all the contracts will actually come through. (See related story, Page 24.)

"Is this all for naught? You do keep an eye on Congress. You keep seeing them questioning a lot of things," said Scott Schiller, the supervisor of television resources for the 121,000-student Prince George's County schools in Maryland, who helped to fill out the district's E-rate application.

"There has been a lot of smoke--if not fire--[in Congress] about the program being too large and about it covering internal wiring," agreed Leslie Harris, a lobbyist for the Consortium for School Networking and the International Society for Technology in Education.

At the same time, she said, "I believe there are people in Congress who will throw their bodies in front of any move that would seriously injure this program."

Through the program authorized under the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress has said that $2.25 billion in discounts will be distributed per year on a wide range of telecommunications services for schools and libraries. The money will be collected from telecommunications companies.

But Congress has also agreed that only $625 million of that amount will be collected in the first six months of the program, before June 30 of this year.

Donald Meyer, a spokesman for Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, a key proponent of the E-rate program, said last week that Congress won't go above that level until it receives a report from the FCC on how the program has been working so far.

"Congress is waiting to see the results of an FCC report that is going to say how much is being spent and how much is needed," Mr. Meyer said.

Heavy Demand

While the FCC is not scheduled to release such a report until May 8, it's not hard to see how at least the initial $625 million could be used up almost immediately.

A survey conducted by the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools shows that 35 of its member districts alone have asked for discounts totaling $305 million.

The SLC said last week that it had received 46,000 Form 470s from schools, districts, and consortia. Some 35,000 of those forms had been filed in time for the applicants to make the 75-day window for their Form 471s.

If for some reason Congress doesn't collect the full $2.25 billion, or if that amount of money doesn't stretch to all the applicants, some schools could be in a bind, said Ms. Breedlove of the NEA.

While schools and districts were encouraged to put escape clauses in the E-rate-related contracts they signed with vendors, "some of them forgot to do the contingency part," she said.

Schools and libraries with the greatest need would receive discounts first if Congress limited funding, Ira Fishman, the executive director of the Schools and Libraries Corp., said in an interview.

"The FCC would require the most disadvantaged applicants to receive the highest priority," he said.

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