At a Capitol Hill forum last week to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the E-rate program, policymakers and educational technology supporters called for strengthening the $2.25 billion federal program, which helps build the technology infrastructure of schools and libraries and wire them to the Internet.
The program should aggressively penalize schools, libraries, and companies that waste money, commit fraud, or otherwise abuse the E-rate, participants at the Feb. 28 session said. Over the years, numerous companies and individuals have been convicted of defrauding the program, including a single involving $9 million.
U.S. Sens. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, and Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, have introduced a bill known as the Universal Services Fund Act that would penalize E-rate participants who repeatedly and knowingly violated program rules. The bill also calls for permanently barring vendors convicted of federal fraud charges from participating in the program.
Several participants at the forum said the telecommunications program should also be granted a permanent exemption from the federal Anti-Deficiency Act, which mandates that the federal government pay for programs only with funds already on hand, not with money it projects receiving in the future.
The E-rate, or “education rate,” however, operates on forecasts of revenues paid into the fund by providers of telecommunications services. Since the program’s inception, Congress has passed three measures granting the E-rate program temporary exemptions from the Anti-Deficiency Act. The senators’ bill would make the exemption permanent. In the House, U.S. Reps. Barbara Cubin, R-Wyo., and Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., have co-sponsored a similar bill.
In addition, the Senate bill would set performance measures to track the program’s efficacy, such as the progress of schools and libraries toward achieving Internet-connectivity goals. The bill does not include academic-performance measures, said Barbara Pryor, a legislative assistant to Sen. Rockefeller.
“I’m not sure if [Federal Communications Commission members] want to step into the very difficult field of educational assessment,” she said to appreciative laughs from the audience, which packed a small hearing room in a Senate office building.
The FCC oversees the E-rate program, which has paid for almost $19 billion in discounted telephone services, Internet access, and internal-wiring technology for schools and libraries since 1997. The the Washington-based Universal Service Administrative Co., a nonprofit organization independent of the federal government, administers the Universal Service Fund, which includes the E-rate program.
Despite some of the E-rate program’s problems over the past decade, those at the forum appeared more interested in celebrating its accomplishments in facilitating greater access to the Internet and other technology for young people.
“It stuns me—our success,” said Sen. Rockefeller. “I don’t think it’s too much to say that this [program] has changed the nature of education.”
Internet access in schools has skyrocketed from 14 percent in 1996 to 94 percent in 2005 with the help of the program, according to a report released at the forum by the Education and Libraries Networks, a coalition of more than two dozen education groups, and the National Coalition for Technology in Education and Training, an Alexandria, Va.-based nonprofit group.
In addition, virtually 100 percent of U.S. public libraries now provide free Internet access, and more than 2,800 private K-12 schools have also benefited from the program.
Telecommunications and technology-related companies such as New York City-based Verizon Communications Inc. and the government and education unit of the Minneapolis-based retail company Best Buy Co. sponsored the report.
Sen. Rockefeller said that educators, lawmakers, and other E-rate proponents cannot rest on their laurels. The program’s existence seemed precarious in its early years, and some federal telecommunications laws are scheduled to be overhauled this year.
“We have to keep the pressure on,” Sen. Rockefeller said of ensuring the E-rate program’s continuation, speaking at the forum. “People still want to end the program. That’s why we have to be vigilant.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 2007 edition of Education Week as E-Rate Program, at10, Is Lauded for HelpingWire Schools