ORLANDO, Fla. — If eRate funding can’t cover all those who apply, schools most in need will go to the head of the queue, said Ira Fishman, head of the Schools and Libraries Corporation (SLC) that administers the eRate program. Fishman spelled out his eRate funding hierarchy during the Florida Education Technology Conference (FETC) here on March 7.

Fishman’s explanation was the first indication of what would happen if eRate requests exceed available funds.

The schools “most in need” are also those slated to get the largest payments ‹reimbursement for up to 90 percent of their covered technology expenses.

Because large urban districts have filed for the biggest amounts in total discounts, audience members protested, the $625 million being collected for the first half of 1998 could quickly disappear.

New York City alone, for example, has applied for $200 million in eRate discounts, according to one FETC attendee who questioned Fishman.

Joe Salvati, who is preparing the application for New York City schools, wouldn’t say exactly how much the consortium is going in for, but acknowledged that the figure is in the quarter billion ballpark‹although it “could be substantially less,” he told eSchool News.

The four-day FETC conference drew some 16,500 people from coast to coast to the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, according to FETC organizers. The K-20 educators came to learn about education technology and browse a huge exhibit hall full of products and services.

Topic A on the agendas of most convention-goers was the eRate. Fishman spoke to that issue during a panel discussion with Linda Roberts, the director of the Department of Education’s Office of School Technology, and two local officials.

The SLC has come under close scrutiny lately by lawmakers seeking to introduce legislation that would limit the eRate. One strategy taken by legislators was to question the legitimacy of the SLC, which administers the eRate. Fishman declined to comment on the ruling, issued in February by the congressional General Accounting Office.

Fishman was responding to audience concerns about recent bills introduced to restrict funds to schools and libraries for internet access. Several audience members raised questions about the availability of funds.

Acknowledging that the agency had received over 21,000 applications in the six weeks since the application window opened, he said requests ranged from “very, very small” to “large numbers [from] large systems.”

Applicants are vying for the $625 million collected from telecommunications companies. One audience member‹who later described preparing his school’s eRate application as “sheer hell”‹made this point: If the $625 million were to be evenly distributed only among those applicants who already have applied, each would receive only $30,000.

That’s when Fishman revealed for the first time that, in the event of a short fall in eRate funding, the discounts won’t be distributed evenly but on the basis of student economic status.

Fishman added that the agency is optimistic the eRate program will survive, despite recent actions on the part of lawmakers to derail the program.

“Doing anything new in Washington is hard,” Fishman explained. But “even those in Congress who raise questions [about the eRate] are very careful to say, `We support this program.'” Legislator’s questions are about how best to distribute funds, Fishman said, not whether to do so.

“At the end of the day whether this program survives will depend on whether it works in schools and libraries,” Fishman said. As part of the evaluation of the eRate program, Fishman said, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to retain an academic institution to determine the program’s impact on students.

This means schools that receive eRate funding in 1998 should be prepared to document in 1999 the positive ways they used the money.