'E-Rate' Cuts Force Schools To Alter Plans

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Educators across the country expressed disappointment last week at the Federal Communications Commission's decision to cut funding for the federal "E-rate" discounts on telecommunications services and equipment.

Instead of $2.3 billion in discounts over a period of one year, as originally envisioned by the FCC, the agency now plans to distribute $1.9 billion over 18 months.

Even more distressing, some school officials say, was the commission's decision to direct the downsized fund first toward paying charges for telecommunications services and Internet access.

Only after all those recurring costs are paid will the remainder of the fund--an estimated $400 million--be spent on what many districts consider their top E-rate priority: installing internal wiring and related equipment in classrooms. Discounts on such internal connections will likely be offered only to the neediest schools and libraries--those eligible for 80 percent and 90 percent discounts. Some $800 million in wiring projects will likely be unfunded.

"It's going to slow us down," said Linda A. Pittenger, the principal assistant at the state office of education technology in Kentucky, a state that many consider a leader in school technology. "The majority of what we requested was for internal connections."

She said Kentucky districts rescheduled construction projects to get a boost from the education-rate, and more than a year ago started skimming money from other programs to cover the nondiscounted portion of the wiring cost. In addition, Gov. Paul E. Patton, a Democrat, directed $114 million from the state's surplus fund for the same purpose.

Without classroom wiring, investments in staff development and new computers will be underused, Ms. Pittenger said.

"The thing that upsets me about this the most is that broken promise," she said. "[The districts] have operated in good faith, and been very careful about what they've applied for."

Compromise Decision

The FCC explained its June 12 decision as a compromise between the needs of schools and libraries and the need to keep telephone-rate increases in check.

The discounts are to be paid for by money collected from telecommunications companies, some of which have passed along those fees to consumers on their phone bills. That, in turn, has raised the ire of several powerful members of Congress, who want to kill the program.

Some E-rate advocates in Washington accused the FCC of folding to political pressure. Yet many educators realize the FCC decision could have been worse.

Commissioner Michael K. Powell, who voted against the revised plan, said in his dissent that he favored suspending and revamping the program before the first dollar had been spent. And lawmakers such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, are still threatening to put the E-rate on hold.

Mark A. Root, the manager of technology and information services at the Council of the Great City Schools, based in Washington, said urban school administrators were meeting in Chicago when the FCC decision was announced. "Our initial reaction was, 'Great, we still have a program.' Then [the details] started to sink in, and people realized they weren't going to be able to do what they wanted to do."

Planning for Naught?

From the E-rate program's inception, officials at the FCC and the Schools and Libraries Corp., the FCC-created entity that administers it, had talked up its flexibility and the many options it would give schools.

Now, some school people say this month's decision undercuts their planning processes.

One reason is that schools receive their discount rates individually, based on the poverty levels of their students, but most districts have comprehensive technology plans that rely on all schools' having a standard infrastructure.

Diana D. Derry, the universal-service coordinator of the Jefferson County, Colo., schools, said the 85,000-student district had applied for discounts to complete the wiring of 30 of its 148 partly wired schools. But only three of those schools will likely be eligible under the FCC's new guidelines.

She added that the school board "in good faith" approved the wiring of eight schools that no longer can expect discounts. "Now we'll have to pay [vendors] that 40 percent," she said, adding that the total loss to the district in expected discounts was about $600,000.

As long as the wiring of its schools remains a patchwork, Ms. Derry said, the district also loses many benefits of joint planning, a $1 million staff-training effort, and pooled purchasing power. "When one area loses, we all lose."

And students also will feel the effects, she said. "If the building isn't wired, and you have all these students trying to surf [the Internet], it's impossible to create an equitable environment if you're working with three to five dial-up lines or several labs."

In Memphis, Tenn., meanwhile, schools will likely receive funding for a high-end telecommunications service called "asynchronous transfer mode," or ATM, said William C. Hazelton, Jr. the 112,000-student district's E-rate coordinator.

But 11 Memphis schools that applied for wiring discounts fall outside the 80 percent and 90 percent brackets, he said.

"That's the Catch-22. We applied assuming we could bring in that [telecommunications] service and distribute it to all the classrooms," Mr. Hazelton said. "If we can't do the wiring and cabling and put in switches for ATM technology, we don't need the ATM coming in the building."

Instead, the schools may have to stick with their overloaded lower-capacity lines and return the discounts, he said.

'Shortsighted' Move

Nationally, some $800 million in requests for wiring discounts will likely go unfilled this year, based on figures from the Schools and Libraries Corp.

The wiring is so important to some Kentucky districts, Ms. Pittenger said, that they may choose to decline E-rate discounts for other services--such as telephone systems--to free up their own money for that purpose.

The fcc commissioners "are imposing their values on the applicant about what's most valuable to the teacher, to a student in the classroom," Ms. Pittenger contended.

But some educators said the FCC's emphasis on services over wiring was a good idea--given the lower funding level--because it ensures that all applicants get some discounts for their efforts. In addition, wiring the neediest schools first is a fundamental goal of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which authorized the E-rate program.

Jacqueline B. Shrago, Tennessee's state technology director, said that helping schools get Internet services--even if a lack of wiring limits access--is a big help.

"If our state is any indication, once we put in Internet access, even to a limited number of computers in school, the wiring got done--from a lot of other sources--because people wanted it," she said.

Libraries, too, have been stung by the wiring decision. Agnes M. Griffen, the library director at the Tucson-Pima public library, which serves an area in Arizona covering 9,000 square miles, said the system's overall discount rate is 74 percent.

"We consider ourselves pretty high-need," Ms. Griffen said.

By missing the cutoff point for wiring discounts, she said, projects to bring public Internet access, fax service, and telephones to 19 isolated library branches must wait.

"It's a basic fact of nature. You can't plug in your PCs if you can't get your internal wiring done," Ms. Griffen said. "If you can't plug the damn things in, you can't get access to the World Wide Web for public users and students."

Like many other librarians and educators, Ms. Griffen accused the FCC of myopia. "It's shortsighted--I can't believe it."

Vol. 17, Issue 41, Pages 1, 28

Published in Print: June 24, 1998, as 'E-Rate' Cuts Force Schools To Alter Plans
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