At least three members of the U.S. House of Representatives have announced their intention to kill the eRate program, which helps schools and libraries defray the costs of connecting to the internet.

On Jan. 26, freshman House member Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., and returning members Pete Sessions, R-Texas, and Ed Royce, R-Calif., sent a letter to their colleagues soliciting support for legislation being drafted by Tancredo and tentatively called the “eRate Termination Act.”

In the letter, the three congressmen described the eRate as a “backdoor tax” that isn’t necessary, because federal funding already exists to improve technology in schools.

“Our intention is to end the program,” Scott Slusher, Tancredo’s press secretary, told eSchool News. When asked why, Slusher said the congressman is “opposed to taxes–whether you call them fees, or access charges, or whatever.”

Slusher said the bill is still being drafted, but that it would be introduced “sooner rather than later.” Though he did not give any names, he said the congressmen were encouraged by other House members who have voiced their support as well.

The letter is sure to renew debate in Congress about whether the eRate should exist, and if so, how it should be paid for. Criticism of the program began last year when telecommunications companies, which subsidize the discounts through fees collected by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), started passing along the program’s cost to their consumers.

If not for impeachment . . .

Bryan Wilkes, Royce’s press secretary, said the congressman’s office has received “a huge amount of mail and eMail” from voters who are angry about the surcharges on their phone bills. “If it wasn’t for the impeachment hearings, this would be the dominant issue,” Wilkes said. “[Royce] is listening to his constituents.”

Surcharges on residential customers’ bills depend on the carrier, but generally cost about a dollar per line per month–though for business customers, the surcharges are higher. Only 19 cents of every dollar actually pays for the eRate, said FCC Chairman William Kennard; the rest supports high-cost, low-income phone customers under the traditional universal service program.

Another reason the congressmen believe the eRate isn’t necessary, Wilkes said, is a 1998 report from the General Accounting Office concluding that some $12 billion in federal money was available to schools for technology last year–though only $2.5 billion, which includes the eRate, was earmarked specifically for technology in K-12 schools, the report said.

The report, which was commissioned by the House Committee on Education and the Work Force and the Senate Commerce Committee to investigate what the committees termed duplicative sources of school technology funding, was released Sept. 15.

Finally, Wilkes said, the congressmen believe the FCC’s implementation of the eRate is unconstitutional because the agency is imposing a tax that only Congress has the authority to levy. Though the eRate was established by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the congressmen believe the FCC has exceeded the vision Congress had when it passed the legislation, Wilkes said.

A similar legal challenge to the eRate brought by GTE Communications Corp. is before the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. A ruling is expected this spring. Two other plaintiffs, BellSouth Corp. and SBC Communications Inc., have withdrawn their complaints, believing they can resolve their differences with the FCC out of court.

Deadline extended to April 6

Even as House Republicans were planning the eRate’s demise, the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co.–the federal agency that administers the program– announced it had reached the billion-dollar mark in issuing funds.

With the eighth wave of funding commitment letters issued Feb. 10, “We’ve rounded third and we’re headed for home,” said SLD president Kate Moore.

Acknowledging that nearly one-third of applicants still hadn’t received letters, the SLD extended the deadline for filing completed 1999 applications to 11:59 p.m. EST on April 6. In order to be considered in the window, schools must file a Form 470, wait 28 days, then file a Form 471 so their entire application is received no later than April 6.

An additional two to four waves of funding commitment letters need to be issued before 1998 funding is completed, Moore said. The agency’s goal is to get funding commitments into the hands of all remaining applicants in time for them to apply for 1999, she said.

Schools and Libraries Division (formerly Schools and Libraries Corp.)

Rep. Ed Royce

Rep. Pete Sessions

Federal Communications Commission