E-What? Learning More About E-Rate
Saturday, January 15, 2011
The Schools and Libraries program, more commonly referred to as E-Rate, is a prime example of how the government assists schools acquire access to technologies many of us now take for granted. Administered by the Universal Services Administration Company (USAC), E-Rate provides tiered-discounts based on poverty levels and location to schools in order to acquire internet access and telecommunications services. The program has been enormously successful in increasing the availability of affordable internet services to schools, fostering the expansion of new educational opportunities such as distance learning.
Each year, nonprofit K-12 schools and libraries (both public and private) are eligible to apply to USAC to receive discounts that can range from 25% up to 90%. The application process is lengthier than the formulation of a typical grant proposal, including an outline of what services the school or library is seeking, development and approval of a written technology plan, hosting of an open, unbiased bidding period during which vendors may submit bids for services, and the final approval for funding.
This year, USAC also sought to expand the traditional confines of the E-Rate program in order to make it more responsive to new educational challenges and demands. One such change included the opening of a new competition to allow for extending E-Rate services to off-site locations. Traditionally, E-Rate services could only be used at the actual educational facilities of a school or library. The new Fiscal Year 2011 competition, EDU2011, allowed schools or libraries to extend services to additional facilities - such as dormitories or additional community-based facilities. Although the application period has since closed, it will be important to watch the results of these early recipients to determine if USAC continues an annual competition or incorporates off-site mobile learning more broadly into the general E-Rate program.
USAC also extended the previous year's waiver on the requirement E-Rate funds be used only for purely education purposes. E-Rate recipients may continue to use funds for services beyond the traditional school day, for example, and make services available for community use as well. This recognition of schools as more than mere educational facilities and as community-based anchor organizations is a common priority for the Obama administration, and can be seen in its grant programs such as Promise Neighborhoods (which uses education reform as the basis for supporting social services in an effort to address community-wide challenges that affect education).
A third important improvement to the E-Rate program is the new funding determination. Previously set at a flat rate of about $2 billion each year, the total funding will now be increased to $2.27 billion and then indexed to inflation to ensure the program maintains its purchasing power.
The E-Rate program is a crucial component of the nation's overall strategy to improve education. At its core, E-Rate is about equipping students with the tools they need to succeed without burdening local budgets even more. Interested schools and libraries should act now to begin the new E-Rate application, with the filing window open between January 11, 2011 and March 24, 2011.