School Groups Rally Behind E-Rate Program
Groups representing U.S. public and private schools, school administrators, and the nation's largest teachers' union have launched a "Save the E-Rate Campaign" to avert efforts to cut federal subsidies for telecommunications services for schools and libraries.
Leaders of some of the groups say they fear that Congress or the Federal Communications Commission will scale back the education-rate program, which could provide discounts of up to $2.25 billion annually on purchases of services and equipment.
"I do think [a rollback] is a real threat," Joseph S. Villani, an associate executive director of the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va., said last week. "We are actively lobbying to keep the initial level of support that is committed."
Other groups in the campaign are the American Association of School Administrators, the National Association of Independent Schools, the National Catholic Educational Association, the National Education Association, and the U.S. Catholic Conference's department of education.
The federal Schools and Libraries Corp., which administers the E-rate program, has received more than 30,000 applications for discounts from schools, libraries, school districts, and states.
The discounts range from 20 percent to 90 percent, depending on the poverty level in the local school enrollment. They can be applied to a wide variety of telecommunications equipment and services, including telephone charges for high-speed Internet access and the internal wiring of classrooms.
The SLC reported to the Federal Communications Commission last week that as of April 28, applicants had requested $2.02 billion in discounts for this year. The application period began Jan. 30.
"We're a little surprised at the level for 1998: It's higher than we expected," said Steve Kohn, the director of education initiatives of Bell Atlantic Corp., a regional telephone company. "We're glad schools have applied."
In January, the Congressional Budget Office predicted that most schools would apply this year only for discounts on existing telecommunications services, for a total of $560 million.
Supporters of the program hope the strong response will help insulate the program from cuts.
But some members of Congress say they didn't intend for the E-rate to cover the internal wiring of schools. They say internal wiring could raise the cost of the program substantially and encourage applicants to seek more sophisticated systems than they need.
Multiple Threats Seen
E-rate supporters see other other potential threats to the program.
Three local phone companies--BellSouth Corp., GTE Corp., and SBC Communications Inc.--have filed a lawsuit that, if successful, could eliminate the program's discounts for Internet access and connections, wired or wireless, inside buildings.
And three long-distance phone companies--AT&T Corp., MCI Communications Corp., and Sprint Corp.--are threatening to pass their costs along to consumers by adding a line item to residential customers' bills.
Any one of those threats could pressure Congress or the FCC to scale back the E-rate program, the program's supporters say.
Capitol Hill observers say that considerable support still exists for the E-rate and that proposed changes don't shake a general consensus in Congress that the program should be preserved.
But E-rate campaign members paint a dire picture of the education community's disappointment if the program were cut significantly.
Eliminating internal wiring would be "a real crippling blow for so many schools," said Stephen K. Wollmer, an NEA spokesman. "That's a big part of their E-rate plans."
The groups note that many districts, anticipating receiving discounts this year, made extensive plans to implement technology-based programs, passed budgets, and borrowed money to cover the undiscounted portion of the services as well as to pay for computer equipment and teacher training not covered by the program.
Campaign members have created a World Wide Web site--at http://congress.nw.dc.us/e-rate--as part of their lobbying effort.
The campaign was launched May 6, just two days before the FCC was required to report to Congress on how to restructure the program's administration. The General Accounting Office recently concluded that the agency violated the law by creating the SLC.
Vol. 17, Issue 35, Page 22