Vice President Al Gore, attending a technology conference in Washington late in February, lashed out at opponents of the eRate, pledging to defend the program and charging that legislators who seek to restrict billions in technology discounts for schools and libraries are threatening the future of the nation’s neediest students.

“There are those who would pick the money from the pockets of our poorest schools,” Gore said. “I would like to say to them loudly and clearly: Your effort to block the eRate is an effort to ration information and ration education, and it would darken the future of some of our brightest students. We will not let you do it.”

Gore’s declaration came during the Connecting All Americans conference in Washington, D.C., Feb. 24-27, where fears ran high that Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, is drafting legislation to cut back eRate funds. The eRate program, part of the Universal Service Funds mandated by the 1996 Telecommunications Act, would give $2.25 billion in federal discounts to help public schools and libraries connect to the internet.

No bill to scale back the eRate had yet been drafted, said Mitch Rose, an aide to Stevens. Rose told reporters that both parties are having conversations and floating proposals through both houses of Congress to make alterations to the program.

“Nobody is sitting here saying let’s kill the program; let’s cripple it,” Rose said. “There is just a general concern about the rate increase.”

At issue is $625 million being collected for the first half of the year from telecommunications companies (telecos) to subsidize the discounts. Among the many issues connected to the eRate, the one legislators reportedly fear most is that residential phone rates will be increased to help cover the outlay by the telecos. Business rates, according to Stevens’ office, have already gone up 4.9 percent as a result of the program.

eRate controversy

It was Stevens who prompted the congressional General Accounting Office (GAO) to investigate the Schools and Libraries Corp., the nonprofit organization established by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to administer eRate funds. The GAO ruled in February that the FCC overstepped its authority by creating the organization.

The Senate is expected to hold a hearing on the GAO ruling. And Stevens has asked for an FCC report on the implementation of Universal Service provisions of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The report is due April 10.

While the Schools & Libraries Corp. (SLC) continues to maintain its official silence on the controversy, one agency insider told eSchool News that the SLC does not expect Congress to act on the GAO’s ruling. The office had collected more than 30,000 applications for eRate discounts within weeks of the program’s official opening in January.

With so many applicants, some are wondering how far funds will go to cover schools’ expenses. Ira Fishman, head of the SLC, said recently that schools “most in need”‹many of whom are entitled to reimbursements up to 90 percent of their technology expenses‹would be awarded funds first, should requests exceed available funds.

If big city schools are put in the neediest category, the SLC’s $625 million first-half funding would be exhausted in a hurry. New York City schools alone reportedly have asked for $200 million in eRate discounts, for example.

Internet School Filtering Act

A bill introduced by Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., would force schools and libraries to regulate internet access by means of content-filtering software before they would qualify for eRate discounts.

McCain’s bill, cosponsored by the committee’s senior Democrat, Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, would require schools and libraries to install filtering software before they could apply for the eRate.

A related measure, sponsored by Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., was introduced last November. Coats’ bill would prevent commercial distribution of online materials deemed “harmful to minors.” Coats is also co-sponsoring the McCain bill, along with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., whose state is home to Microsoft and the filtering company NetNanny.

“We have an obligation to parents that their children will have some protection when [parents] are not in the home,” McCain said. “That’s what this is all about.”

Many disagree. Critics of the McCain bill are saying it is yet another attempt to forestall the collection and distribution of eRate funds. McCain‹whose campaign contributors have included political action committees of AT&T, Sprint, and U.S. West‹has been vocal in expressing his opposition to the eRate.

To receive a subsidy under the McCain bill, a school would have to meet a new requirement. It would have to certify it was using screening software to protect children from accessing web sites with objectionable content. Libraries would need to have at least one computer available for public use that was running screening software.

McCain’s bill “takes away the ability of schools to make a decision at the local level about whether or not to use blocking or filtering software,” the National Education Association’s John Bernstein told eSchool News. “It puts up one further obstacle to successfully having schools apply for the eRate discounts.”

The bill’s chances of passage are unclear. Observers note that the Republican majority opposes Clinton administration proposals to set voluntary national testing standards. Republican opposition is grounded on the argument that such standards would violate local control. Opponents say local control also would be undermined by a mandate as specific and invasive as the one contained in the McCain bill.

But the CDT’s Weitzner sees the McCain bill as a real threat. “This bill is a very serious proposal and is gathering support daily,” Weitzner said. “[It] could be passed.”

Telecos complaining

The telecos agreed in 1996 to underwrite schools’ and libraries’ internet expenses, but they have since begun to lobby against the program, complaining that internet service providers aren’t being asked to pitch in, too.

FCC Chair William Kennard said the commission is taking steps to help the telecos balance losses.

In the past two years, he said, the FCC has cut access charges for long-distance companies by $2 billion, with the theory that those savings would be used to offset eRate costs.

But there’s no evidence of the impact of those savings, and Kennard sent a letter to the three biggest long-distance companies in February asking them to show cause for believing the savings are not simply being added to company profits.

“If they have chosen to pocket those extra dollars, I want to know about it, and you need to know about it,” he said.

The amount of a school’s discount depends on factors such as the number of free or reduced-price lunches it serves and whether it is located in a rural or urban area.

The SLC set off alarm bells when it announced plans to collect less money from the telecos in the first six months than originally intended. The initial teleco contribution had been pegged at $2.25 billion for the year, but the SLC said it would collect only $625 million for the first half of the year. The agency based the reduction on its stated belief that fewer schools than originally expected would actually be ready to apply for funds in the first half of 1998. SLC officials indicated they could increase the amount of funding collected in the second half of the year to make up for the difference if more schools than anticipated applied right away.

But Gore, Kennard, and others at the Connecting All Americans conference emphasized the need for maximum financing to make sure inner-city and rural schools and libraries have the same opportunities as suburban schools.

“It is critical that we connect all our children to the internet to give them the tools that will help shape their future,” Gore said. “We must bridge the ‘digital divide’ and provide a direct link to all classrooms, so low-income and rural students don’t get left behind. All of us must stand together to oppose those who would take the future from our kids by destroying this program.”

Gore cited numbers from a new study by the Department of Education (ED) that shows the share of schools connected to the internet has nearly doubled to 80 percent and the number of classrooms wired has increased nine times since the Clinton administration took office in 1994.

“We have made great progress,” Gore said, “but it’s not even close to what we need.”

The ED study he cited shows schools with 50 percent or more minority students and 71 percent or more low-income students still lag behind.

General Accounting Office

Federal Communications Commission

Schools and Libraries Corporation

Sen. John McCain