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E-Rate Modernization Proposal the Focus of Last-Minute Lobbying

By guest blogger Michele Molnar

School and library organizations that rely on E-rate funding are making a last-minute push to get their messages out about how they want the Federal Communications Commission to vote tomorrow on retooling the 18-year-old program that subsidizes their telecommunications and Internet costs.

Several associations are lining up staunchly behind the proposal as a critical first step to bringing America's schools closer to President Barack Obams's stated goal of providing at least 99 percent of America's students with access to high-speed broadband in their schools and libraries within the next five years.

Several organizations signed a July 7 letter endorsing a draft E-rate plan circulated by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. Those groups include National Association of State Boards of Education, the Consortium for School Networking, EducationSuperHighway, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, Digital Promise, the American Library Association, and the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies. Another backer of the plan, the State Educational Technology Directors Association, highlighted those endorsements in a blog post published July 8.

Meanwhile, a major school technology organization, the International Society for Technology in Education, has voiced deep concerns about the chairman's proposal, saying it focuses on Wi-Fi at the expense of other forms of connectivity, and other services, such as telephone services. ISTE is pushing for a modernization that includes raising the E-rate funding cap first and foremost. On July 8, the organization submitted a petition signed by 1,500 educators urging the commission to take that step; however, a sustained "raising the cap" funding boost is not part of FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposal, which he outlined on June 20.

Wheeler proposes increases support for Wi-Fi in schools by committing at least $1 billion in guaranteed support for those technologies for the 2015-16 school year, followed by another $1 billion in 2016-17, with a multiyear transition to broadband-only services, eventually helping schools use the Internet for telephone services.

Beyond that, his proposal seeks to make E-rate dollars go further by focusing on processes to drive down prices and increase transparency about E-rate spending. Third, it would streamline the application process for districts and schools. Last week, Wheeler explained, and answered some of the criticism of his plan in a Q-and-A with EdWeek's Sean Cavanagh. 

If the commission adopts the chairman's proposal, the FCC chairman has estimated that 10 million students in 2015-16 could get Wi-Fi Internet connections. Nationwide, the proposal would increase funding for Wi-Fi by 75 percent for rural schools, and 60 percent for urban schools, allowing 44 million students and 16,000 libraries to have access to Wi-Fi services by the 2019-20 school year, the FCC argued in a July 1 release.

However, at least two rural school districts have taken what they know about the proposal, calculated its potential impact, and concluded that they would come up short in funding for what they believe they need.

Phasing out telecommunications services would mean a potential net loss of $288,000 over five years, with an additional $90,000 per year after that, said Ron McDaniel, technology coordinator for the 1,600-student Conecuh County School district in Alabama. His rural district, which qualifies for 90 percent discount rates because of the high rate of poverty there, would be impacted. The district has applied for $250,000 in Priority 2 funding for wireless connectivity in the 2014-15 school year, but doesn't know whether it will receive anything for that request.

 "The chairman's proposal is a shift from the current focus of funding to broadband, by taking the money they would have been using on telecommunications [on phones and pager service, for example,]  and shifting it over to broadband and Wi-Fi," said Micah Rigdon, compliance specialist with Funds for Learning, an Oklahoma-based company that consults schools on the E-rate, and that supports Wheeler's proposal.  "Schools will have to adjust budgets from broadband to telecommunications if they're going to continue the same services they've had."

In Sitka, Alaska, Cassee Olin, business manager of the 1,300-student Sitka School District, estimated that the overall impact would be a loss of $36,000.

"Those services being eliminated [for phone lines, web hosting, and cell service] are important to us," for safety, for transparency, and for parent involvement, among other things, said Mary Wegner, Sitka's superintendent. "We live on an island...and we're very concerned about our connectivity to the world."

For more information about what will happen with the proposed modernization, the commission last week released a report detailing state-by-state impacts. The report estimates that if passed, the E-rate modernization plan will connect an additional 43.6 million students to Wi-Fi over five years.


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