E-Rate for Education: It Could Have Been So Simple

In 1996, after a dozen or so years of debate Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. One of its provisions was a small tax placed on cable and phone bills. For the 2003-04 school year it amounts to 1.65 BILLION dollars. The money is placed into a fund to be dispersed to public and private schools to assist in the development of the technology infrastructure of schools. The original idea and goal was so simple and worthy. Unfortunately, the federal government, in its good-natured but bureaucratic-happy fashion, created a funding delivery system that keeps students from seeing the financial benefits.

How It Works
At the beginning of each school year, an administrator or school technologists begin filling out forms. The key question being how many students qualify for free or reduced lunches. Certain forms are due by certain dates. I should point out that E-Rate administrators and workers do a tremendous job by all accounts. Administrators have over the years streamlining and demystified the process considerably. The department employees are quick to contact and assist with any question or correction. Monies that are received can go for the purchasing of physical infrastructure or services except computer hardware. Usually, this means wiring or phone/internet service costs.

Sounds a little silly so far? Just wait, it gets worse. Let’s say that a small town school in Kansas wants to wire the building in order to connect computers to a server and phones to a switchboard. Does the school receive a flat amount based on the number of reduced or free lunches, no. Instead, the school then must submit to a bid system under the watchdog of the government, all done on the Internet. Registered companies receive the school proposal and place bids for selling materials or materials and labor. Sadly, this theoretically neat bid system ends up costing more and at the same time cuts out the local company from being involved in the bidding process. Why, because companies must go through a rigorous paperwork process that may take months to complete. If the local electrical company jumps those hoops, it must give a full-price bid rather than naturally giving a discount and using volunteer community labor. In the end the project lose to the detriment of all.

Simplifying the Process
First, let me share these numbers from the Census Bureau. Today, there are approximately 53 million school-age children in the USA. If you take that number to divide $1.65 billion, you end up with $31 per student. Keeping that in mind, I propose that on the first Monday of October every school in the country (public or private) take a head count and register the number of children in school at the E-Rate website. A check would then be sent that the school could use for any technological purpose with one caveat; it must be directly beneficial to students. Before the next year paperwork and receipts must be turned in showing how the money was used. A school with 300 students would receive $9300, and spent where schools could best use it. Over 80% of all schools are now wired as of the year 2000. So, the areas that schools can spend the money under the current system are very narrow.

Under my proposal, schools would be free to spend money where they know it can be best used. The ability to buy new computers, projectors, and laser printers would do wonders for assisting in implementing technology across all curriculum areas. Training for teachers could be increased rather than cut as in many cases with current school budget pressures. Having a constant/consistent source of funding is critical to many schools when it comes to technology. Way too many times three and five-year technology plans are scrapped or delayed due to a lack of funding. In addition, the various telecommunication corporations are pushing to end the tax. By revamping the process Congress gains clout by showing how they are both helping education and streamlining the government. This will then overpower and quiet the complaints of anti-tax crusaders.

Enough years have gone by that it is time for Congress to act by revamping the program and making it truly beneficial to education instead of just another piece of window-dressing for politicians.

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