In the wake of a massive cyberattack that hobbled the Los Angeles Unified School district earlier this month, district leaders across the county are seeking more federal resources to secure their computer networks.
More than eleven hundred school districts signed off on a letter to the Federal Communications Commission asking the agency to allow school districts to use federal E-rate dollars to cover some cybersecurity costs.
To begin with, the districts want the FCC to revise the E-rate’s more than decade old definition of “firewall” so that districts could use the money to upgrade their firewalls to meet current needs. They are also asking the agency to start a formal federal rulemaking process on E-rate and cybersecurity, a first step in allowing the money to help with other cybersecurity needs.
The recent ransomware attack on the nation’s second largest school district “exposes the significant risk of disruption to instruction, home to school transportation, or access to nutritious meals that would be catastrophic for students and their learning,” the districts and education organizations wrote in a letter to FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel and her fellow commissioners. “School districts and libraries nationwide are fighting increasingly sophisticated cyberattacks and their aftermath with funding meant to be used for meeting the instructional ... needs of our students.”
Using E-rate money to finance cybersecurity is not only “appropriate,” the letter said, but the attack on LAUSD shows that the need for the funding change has reached “a critical point.”
The E-rate program has been around since the mid-1990’s and is primarily used to help school districts and libraries connect to the internet. It is financed by fees on certain telecommunications services, and governed by the Federal Communications Commission.
Currently, the program has a spending cap of $4.4 billion, but it has been allocating far less than that. Last year, E-rate doled out about $2.5 billion, and the year before that, it gave out a little less than $2.1 billion. The lower demand for the funds is due in part to changes made to the program in 2014.
The letter also comes as 56 of 80 state officials surveyed by the nonprofit State Educational Technology Directors Association and Whiteboard Advisors reported that either their state education agency or at least one school district in the state was hit by a cyberattack or threat over the past year. Only 6 respondents said their state provides “ample” funding for cybersecurity, while 32 said they received “very little funding.”
The federal government has allocated some new resources for cybersecurity, including a $1 billion fund for state and local governments. School districts can’t apply for the money directly, but they can benefit if their state or community receives a grant.