Capping more than seven months of anticipation and frustration since the first eRate application window closed on April 15, the Schools and Libraries Corp. (SLC) issued its first two waves of funding commitment letters to about 6,300 schools and libraries—roughly 20 percent of applicants. The letters, which were sent Nov. 23 and Dec. 7, allocated more than $148 million in eRate funds.

“This is a big moment for all of us…,” said Kate Moore, SLC’s acting chief executive officer. “We’re seeing the real beginnings of the program now—it’s real, it’s happening, there’s a great need out there, and we’re moving to meet it.”

Vice President Al Gore, Education Secretary Richard Riley, and Federal Communications Commission Chairman William Kennard celebrated the first wave of letters in a ceremony at a Washington, D.C., public library. Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who co-wrote along with Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, the provision of the 1996 Telecommunications Act that created the eRate, also was in attendance.

“Today, we are taking steps that will forever change the lives of millions of children and change the way teachers teach and children learn,” Gore said, indicating that he felt “excitement blended with relief” that the program was finally on its way to issuing funds.

Since its inception last year, the eRate has been blasted by critics on several fronts. Though schools invested a great deal of time and money in applying last spring, not a single school had yet to receive a discount. Supporters hope the flow of commitment letters will silence the program’s critics.

As recently as a few months ago, “there was a lot of concern about the viability of the program,” Moore said. “Now, we have emerged…This program will be under continuous scrutiny. But I think the worst is hopefully behind us.”

First-wave funding details

The first two waves of letters, which came after a thorough audit of the SLC’s internal controls by independent auditors and the General Accounting Office, were issued to “priority one” applicants—those who requested discounts on telecommunications services or internet access only, as well as those who requested funding for internal connections and who qualify for a 90 percent discount.

In these waves, according to the SLC, one of every $4 in discounts go to the schools and libraries that need it most: those in which at least three-fourths of the student population is eligible for participation in the National School Lunch Program.

In addition, one-third of the dollars will go to applicants from rural areas; schools and libraries from all 50 states were represented. About 3 percent of the letters were flat-out rejections—in most cases, because applicants included extensive requests for ineligible services.

California schools are the big winners so far. The state’s schools and libraries netted more than $24 million in the first waves of letters. New York was next, with $10.6 million; then Michigan with $9.1 million, and Illinois with $8 million.

Decision letters included a Form 486 and a Billed Entity Applicant Reimbursement (BEAR) Form. Form 486 must be completed and returned to the SLC to begin the discount process. For applicants who have already paid for any discounted services in full, the BEAR Form will initiate the reimbursement process.

‘It’s apparently worth it’

Despite countless headaches involved in applying, the lucky applicants among the first to be notified say the experience finally is beginning to pay off.

“This has been a very frustrating process, and I’m glad to see it’s apparently worth it,” said Mark Richmond, technology coordinator for the Tulare City School District in California. The 450-student Heritage School, Tulare’s newest elementary school, will receive eRate funds to offset $113,897 worth of costs associated with connecting classrooms to the internet.

Rick Scofield, director of management information systems for Bellevue School District in Nebraska, said his district will receive $131,148 to cover half its monthly charges for voice and data service through U.S. West. “What a tremendous amount of paperwork—and a lot of interpretations,” Scofield said of the eRate.

Does Scofield plan to apply again for next year? “You bet I do,” he said. “I’d like to see [the program] streamlined if I could….but it’s easy to complain without offering a solution. It would be totally irresponsible to dispense any funds without having some kind of audits in place, so I can understand a lot of the initial difficulty.”

Not all “priority one” applicants were included in the first two waves, the SLC said—so if you applied only for telecommunications services or you qualify for a 90 percent discount and you haven’t received a letter yet, don’t panic.

The SLC plans to issue at least four waves of funding commitment letters altogether. The next wave is scheduled for later in the month, while the last wave won’t be issued until sometime in January.

Exactly when a school or library gets its letter depends on three factors, the SLC said: (1) the funding priorities set by the FCC; (2) the date when its application was successfully entered into the SLC’s database; and (3) the completion of all SLC decisions on the application, so that a complete response can be provided in a single letter.