On Dec. 1, the Schools and Libraries Corp. (SLC) began accepting applications for the 1999-2000 eRate. The new window opened just as applicants were beginning to see the fruits of their labors from last year. Ten months and countless headaches after the 1998 application window opened, the SLC–the group set up to administer the discounts–reached a major milestone when it issued its first wave of funding commitments to about 3,000 applicants in late November.

The federal program got off to a rocky start in 1998. Critics in Congress attacked the eRate’s “bloated bureaucracy,” the Federal Communications Commission cut funding by 40 percent, and applicants cursed the program’s frequently changing rules.

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

Horror stories of applicants’ troubles with the SLC abound. Help from the corporation’s client service bureau was inconsistent at best, and several early applicants were even rejected because they failed to sign the forms in blue ink to help identify original signatures–despite no such rule existing. Based on their experiences last year, some applicants have chosen not to apply for funding this year, preferring to seek funds through other federal programs instead.

But 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.”

Whether you’re applying for the first time or you’re an old hand, here’s the eSchool News roundup of everything you need to know about the eRate to reap the rewards of this federal funding program. Now’s the time to get in; with the program’s history, who knows what’ll happen by this time next year?

Program basics

All K-12 schools, public or private, qualify for the program–which provides discounts on telecommunications services and internet access–if they are nonprofit and do not have an endowment exceeding $50 million.

Applying for the eRate is a three-step process. First, you must submit a Form 470, which describes the eligible services you intend to purchase. Your Form 470 is then posted to the SLC’s web site for 28 days so vendors can bid for your services.

Once you’ve signed a contract (or once the 28-day posting period is over, for services already under contract), you must file a Form 471, which details the services you’re applying for discounts on.

Finally, after you get your funding commitment letter, you must file a Form 486 to confirm that contracted services have begun. This lets the SLC know to begin issuing funds to your vendors, who in turn pass along discounts to you in the form of a check or credit.

As it stands now, the length of the filing window for the 1999-2000 program year is 80 days. For your application to be considered with the others as if they arrived on the same day, you need to file a Form 471 on or before Feb. 19, 1999–which means you should file your Forms 470 on or before Jan. 21, 1999, to allow for the 28-day posting period.

Because most of last year’s applicants have not received their funding commitment letters before the start of the 1999-2000 program year, however, the SLC is considering extending the filing window beyond 80 days, at least for those first-year applicants. Check the SLC’s web site or visit eSchool News Online for the final word on the window’s closing date.

Services eligible for eRate discounts include the installation, maintenance, and operating costs of all commercially available telecommunications systems, internet access (including communications links to internet service providers and eMail), and internal connections (including routers, hubs, and network file servers).

Services and products that aren’t covered include staff development, voice mail, fax machines, modems, electrical upgrades, building infrastructure, and computers or software. (However, computers used solely as switches or file servers, and the software necessary to operate them, are eligible for discounts.)

In theory, up to $2.25 billion in funding is available each year. But pressure from some members of Congress and from telecommunications companies–which subsidize the eRate through fees collected by the FCC–caused the agency to cut funding to $1.3 billion (with a six-month extension providing an additional $600 million) during the first program year.

In the same action, the FCC changed the funding priority in mid-program. Requests for discounts on telecommunications services and internet access now are approved first, and any money left in the fund is distributed to schools and libraries for their internal wiring projects according to need–so a school or district qualifying for an 80 percent discount receives priority over a 70 percent school, and so on.

If you’re applying for funding during the 1999-2000 program year, you’ll want to consider the FCC’s new rules of priority as you prepare your application. Unfortunately, the FCC is not expected to set next year’s funding level until after you’ve already applied, making it difficult to plan your eRate strategy.

Changes in Year Two

Despite these issues, SLC officials remain confident that this year’s program will be much smoother. For starters, the agency has incorporated suggestions from first-round applicants into the process.

Although the forms themselves haven’t changed, the SLC has improved the directions that accompany them. You’ll also be able to submit your Form 471 online this year, instead of having to mail it. The online form will have pop-up help screens to walk you through the application–so less time will be needed for problem resolution, according to SLC’s Tom Carroll, director of technology planning and evaluation.

The agency has refined its outreach efforts as well, Moore said. Based on its experience from last year, the SLC has a better handle on the staffing needs for its toll-free help line. The year’s experience should also improve the quality of help from the client service bureau, Moore said.

“To the extent that [the quality of help] was an issue in year one, it should be a much smaller issue in year two by virtue of both the materials–the sort of training reinforcement we’ve provided–as well as the experience we’ve all had,” Moore said.

Finally, the SLC will be streamlining its internal procedures. For example, the agency has adopted a bar coding process to track and identify applications quickly and easily.

Where to look for help

Forms and their instructions can be downloaded from the SLC’s web site, and the agency’s client service bureau can be reached in any of the following ways:

Phone: (888) 203-8100

Fax: (888) 276-8736

eMail: question@slcfund.org

In addition, eSchool News publishes a monthly newsletter called “eRate Update,” filled with the latest news, policy changes, expert advice, and creative strategies for securing your full share of eRate discounts. Call (888) 394-2551 or visit eSchool News Online to request a free sample issue.

Schools and Libraries Corp.

http://www.slcfund.org

Federal Communications Commission

http://www.fcc.gov