eRate legislation may be put on hold

A joint hearing of two House committees in September to discuss federal programs for school technology—including the eRate—indicated that reforming the program remains active in Congress’ collective mind. But if the sponsors of legislation to overhaul the eRate are to be believed, that probably won’t happen during the current legislative session.

A spokesman for Rep. Ron Klink, D-Pa., told eRate Update it’s unlikely that any pending eRate legislation would be passed in the House before Congress adjourns Oct. 9.

Klink had introduced a bill Aug. 6 that would change the source of funding for the eRate. Called the “Telecommunications Trust Act of 1998” (H.R. 4474), the bill would divert an existing 3 percent telephone excise tax into a fund to pay for the eRate. The fund would be administered by the FCC and would be appropriated for the next six years, beginning in 1999.

The Telecommunications Trust Act is similar in theory to bills sponsored in July by Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., and Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont. All three bills would tackle concerns that the current program, which is funded by contributions from telecommunications carriers, has led to new surcharges on consumers’ long-distance bills. But the Burns-Tauzin legislation drew the ire of school and library officials because it would cut the excise tax from 3 to 1 percent before funding the eRate. Last year, the telephone excise tax generated nearly $4 billion for the federal treasury.

The Burns-Tauzin bills also would transfer oversight of the program from the FCC to the Commerce Department, which in turn would distribute the funds as block grants for states to administer. With the early adjournment of the House so its members can campaign for reelection, though, none of the three seems likely to pass. Charles Territo, press secretary for Rep. Klink, said there’s too much on Congress’ plate right now for it to address the eRate.

“We still have 12 appropriations bills to do, and there’s the whole Lewinsky thing,” he said. “I just don’t know if there’s enough time to address it this fall. It’s kind of an in-depth topic.” The most likely scenario, Territo said, would be for momentum on the issue to build again when Congress reconvenes in January. However, it’s impossible to say whether sponsors of eRate legislation in the House even will be returning to Congress then.

The FCC ‘got it wrong’

Though members of Congress doubt whether eRate legislation will pass this fall, they remain concerned about the program’s implementation. At a joint hearing of the House Commerce and Education Workforce Committees Sept. 16, lawmakers voiced their concerns.

Members of both committees criticized the eRate program for not following through yet on its intended mission. Rep. Thomas Bliley, R-Va., chairman of the House Commerce Committee, said that the FCC “got it wrong. As a result, all that the FCC has given us is higher phone rates, new bureaucracies, and court challenges.” Bliley continued, “After two and a half years of attempting to implement this program, the FCC has failed to give a single school or library a discount on telecommunications services as Congress intended.”

Education Committee chairman Bill Goodling, R-Pa., echoed Bliley’s point, saying that more than two years after the Telecommunications Act was passed, “not a single school has received one dime from the eRate. Fortunately, even without the eRate, access to the internet has quadrupled … and now roughly 80 percent of schools have access to the internet.” Criticism of the eRate at the hearing wasn’t limited to members of Congress. Two school technology directors also blasted the program’s bureaucracy. Brent Frey, supervisor of educational technology for West Shore School District in New Cumberland, Pa., testified that there were 83 changes in the SLC’s rules within 75 days, forcing many states to hire eRate consultants. Most school districts that applied this year won’t do it again, Frey said, and the application requirements could further widen the gap between wealthier and poorer districts. The hearing was called to examine whether the eRate is even worth keeping, and to take stock of existing programs that already provide grants for school technology. An analyst from the General Accounting Office testified that $7.5 billion is being spent on education, but not all is earmarked for technology.

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