Hold on to your E-Rate

In today\'s New York Times, Rebecca S. Weiner writes...

Advocates for the E-rate, a program that subsidizes Internet connections for the country\'s schools and libraries, are worried that President George W. Bush\'s proposal to consolidate federal education technology programs into a single block grant could stifle its success.

\"I can\'t imagine why Mr. Bush would want to take away a program that works,\" said John Vaille, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), which has developed voluntary school technology standards for students and teachers.

The E-rate is supported by payments telephone companies make into a fund for low-cost services to rural and under-served areas that provides very poor schools with up to a 90 percent discount on telecommunications services, including connections to the Internet. The Federal Communications Commission oversees the E-rate, and the Schools and Libraries Division of the government\'s Universal Service Administrative Corporation administers the $2.25 billion program.

President Bush, in his \"No Child Left Behind\" education proposal, suggests combining the E-rate with technology programs run by the Education Department and distributing the money through block grants to state education agencies. But the White House and the Education Department would not elaborate on whether the administration plans to follow through with the arduous legislative process it would require to restructure the funding and administration of the four-year-old program.

\"We don\'t preview any of the plans or proposals,\" said White House spokesman Jimmy Orr, declining to discuss concerns about the proposal. \"More details will be released. The president\'s education initiative will follow through on promises made in the campaign.\"

The Education Department, which administers the bulk of federal education technology programs, also would not expound on the administration\'s plans.

\"This is part of an overall examination of technology grants. Among the many programs being examined is the E-rate,\" said Lindsey Kozberg, spokeswoman for Education Secretary Roderick Paige. \"The framework is there. We\'re seeking to make the funds more effective.\"

Supporters say the telecommunications aspect of the E-rate makes it incompatible with the rest of the Education Department\'s technology grant programs.

\"It\'s not an education program, it\'s a telecommunications program with an education benefit,\" said Richard Hershman, chairman of the Education and Library Networks Coalition (EdLiNC). \"The U.S. Department of Education has no business running a telecommunications program. If the Education Department administers the program, private schools and libraries couldn\'t receive funds.\"

Without more details from the administration, Jeff Burnett, director of government relations for the National Association for Independent Schools, said his group is flagging all potential problems associated with consolidating the E-rate in anticipation of any change.

One such problem, he said, is that private schools, many of which are religiously affiliated, would have trouble receiving E-rate funding if it becomes a federally funded grant distributed to individual schools by state education officials. Direct federal education funding for private religious schools could raise questions about the separation of church and state; E-rate funding does not raise such questions because the money comes from fees paid by telecommunications companies, Mr. Burnett said.

\"There\'s a greater likelihood that private schools could be left out of the loop,\" he said. \"You\'re adding layers of bureaucracy to a program that is rather clean now.\"

Mr. Burnett added that it would also be problematic to base the proposed grant on a school\'s performance, as Mr. Bush has suggested. \"It\'s that kind of interference independent schools aren\'t keen on,\" he said.

By the end of the program\'s second year, 70,000 public schools, 5,000 private schools and 4,500 libraries were participating in the program, according to a study released by the Education Department in September of last year. By 1999, 63 percent of classrooms had Internet connections, up from 3 percent in 1994, according to statistics compiled by EdLiNC.

\"The program is working,\" EdLiNC\'s Mr. Hershman said. \"The numbers show how far we\'ve come in such a short time.\"

Leaders in education technology say the program\'s structure, which allows individual schools, districts or state education departments to apply for the funding, has succeeded by forcing educators to develop detailed technology plans targeted toward telecommunications services and freeing local dollars for software and teacher training.

\"I\'m not an advocate of changing it,\" said Mr. Vaille of ISTE. \"There is a torturous process Congress will have to go through to make it work. It was a hard-fought battle to make it fair and make it work\" in the first place.

Story by Rebecca S. Weiner
The New York Times...
February 28, 2001
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