Capping more than seven months of anticipation and frustration since the 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 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 in late 1997, 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.

“Our perseverance and the perseverance of the eRate supporters, has paid off,” Snowe said. “And the students of America are the real winners.”

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 will 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 were the big winners so far. The state’s schools and libraries netted more than $24 million in the first waves of discount decisions. 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.

The SLC plans to issue at least four waves of funding commitment letters. The last wave is not expected until sometime in January.

Exactly when a school or library gets its letter depends on three factors: (1) the funding priorities set by the FCC; (2) the date the 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.

The SLC acknowledges that most schools and libraries did not know the status of their 1998 eRate application before the window for the 1999-2000 cycle opened Dec. 1, making it difficult to plan for next year’s program. At press time, the corporation was considering extending the window–during which time all applications received would be treated as if they arrived on the same day–beyond Feb. 19, but no decision had yet been made.

While the FCC determines the fund level each year, the annual cap on the eRate is $2.25 billion. Schools, both public and private, and all public libraries can apply for discounts ranging from 20 percent to 90 percent on telecommunications services, internet access, and internal connections.

Schools and Libraries Corp.

http://www.slcfund.org

Federal Communications Commission

http://www.fcc.gov

General Accounting Office

http://www.gao.com