A controversial plan to combine the $2.25 billion eRate and nine other school technology programs into a single block grant is one of a handful of key proposals by President George W. Bush that has divided many policy makers and educators.

In his education plan, which he unveiled Jan. 23, Bush called for a consolidation of “duplicative” school technology programs—including the eRate—into a single block grant. The grant would be administered to schools by formula to help streamline the current federal application process.

Many school leaders who spoke with eSchool News said they welcomed this approach, because they believed it would free them from the burdensome red tape that accompanies the eRate. But education groups and some politicians oppose Bush’s plan to overhaul the eRate, which provides discounts on telecommunications services for eligible schools and libraries and is administered under the Federal Communication Commission’s Schools and Libraries program.

“President Bush’s proposal to convert the eRate into a block grant program with other Department of Education technology programs would be a grave mistake. This would be a major step backwards, and I will fight it aggressively,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.

Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association, which represents more than 95,000 school board members who govern the nation’s public schools, shared Rockfeller’s view.

“Because of the rapid changes in education technology today, we are concerned that the proposed reconfiguration of the eRate program may erode school districts’ ability to effectively use these funds,” Bryant said.

Details of the plan

Not only does Bush’s education plan, entitled “No Child Left Behind,” aim to consolidate overlapping and duplicative grant programs; it also promises to increase accountability for student performance by requiring yearly testing, focus on what works by stressing research-based practices, and empower parents by giving them vouchers.

“Although education is primarily a state and local responsibility, the federal government is partly at fault for tolerating these abysmal results. The federal government currently does not do enough to reward success and sanction failure in our education system,” the proposal stated.

“Over the years, Congress has created hundreds of programs intended to address problems in education without asking whether or not the programs produce results or knowing their impact on local needs. This ‘program for every problem’ solution has begun to add up—so much so that there are hundreds of education programs spread across 39 federal agencies at a cost of $120 billion a year.”

Bush’s plan—which is more like an outline, since it lacks specific details and a budget—provides a general vision for reforming the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which is set to be reauthorized this year. Unlike the current version of the act, which is divided into 10 broad-based themes, or “titles,” Bush’s plan outlines seven titles.

Under Bush’s plan, technology literacy and school safety would be combined into a single new title, called Title V: Encouraging Safe Schools for the 21st Century. This title would replace the current Title III technology programs with a single block grant, which also would encompass eRate funding.

By administering eRate funds by formula, Bush’s proposal aims to eliminate the burdensome paperwork required by the current application process. The funds would be targeted to high-need schools, including rural schools and schools serving high percentages of low-income students.

Schools reportedly would have the flexibility to use the funds for purposes that include software purchases and development, wiring and technology infrastructure, and teacher training in the use of technology.

The funds also could be used to buy internet filters in support of the Children’s Internet Protection Act of 2000, which—if upheld—will mandate the use of internet filters in all schools and libraries that receive eRate funding.

To make sure this money enhances education, states would be encouraged to set performance goals to measure how federal technology funds are being used to improve student achievement. States and school districts would risk losing federal funds if they failed to meet these performance goals.

Title V of Bush’s plan also would offer matching grants to establish community technology centers in high-poverty areas. These grants would be provided through the Community Development Block Grant Program, which is administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The proposals Bush unveiled Jan. 23 are only part of his total agenda for education reform. The president said he would issue more specific details of his plan in the next few months.

Causes for concern

Although NSBA’s Bryant said Bush’s plan has many appealing features, some of his proposals raise questions and are causes for concern.

“The plan announced by the president is only an outline, so our overall evaluation really depends on the details and the level of funding proposed,” Bryant said. “Focusing on block grants controlled by governors will only fuel a different bureaucracy and may not give local school districts the resources or flexibility they need.”

According to Rockefeller, the eRate—which is written into the Telecommunications Act of 1996—was part of a deal with telecommunications companies, which wanted more competition and the ability to expand. In exchange for increased competition and expansion, the federal government insisted that these companies provide discounted services for schools and libraries.

Rockefeller said the eRate—which offers discounts to all public and private schools and libraries for telecommunications services, internet access, and the internal wiring necessary to connect classrooms to the internet—is a successful program with bipartisan support.

“Under the Bush block grant approach, local schools would have less flexibility, not more,” he said. “Private and parochial schools would have to negotiate with state education agencies and worry about entanglements of federal regulations. Most importantly, the secure funding for the eRate and investments in technology would be jeopardized,” because the program would be subject to the annual appropriations process in Congress.

A ‘step in the right direction’?

Proponents of Bush’s plan say schools will see tremendous benefit from his proposal to streamline the administrative requirements of existing technology programs.

“Schools could submit one application and would be allowed the flexibility to pool funds toward everything from purchasing hardware and software, to modifying classrooms to make them technology-ready, to training personnel so that technology can truly be part of the formula for improving achievement,” said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.

Many educators who have experienced the eRate application process also welcomed Bush’s plan to reduce the program’s administrative burdens.

After reviewing Bush’s proposal, which is available on the Department of Education web site, Kyle Hutson, director of technology for the Rock Creek School District in Kansas, said, “That sounds wonderful. I just finished doing the eRate process myself for the first time ever—and what a royal pain in the butt!”

He added, “Anything to make my life easier would be better.”

Tom Sextro, technology director for the Holton Unified School District in Kansas, said he sees Bush’s plan to consolidate the eRate as a step in the right direction, because it could mean less paperwork and more flexibility.

“Just getting rid of the whole eRate process and being funded directly [would be] great, in my opinion,” Sextro said. “Too many schools have probably missed out on funds just because of errors.”

He is concerned about the proposal to measure how federal technology funds are used to improve student achievement, however.

“Right now, we just get the money and spend it, but we don’t have to prove how it affects kids,” Sextro said. “In technology, that’s one of the toughest things to measure.”

“The eRate program is time-consuming. Anything to streamline that would be good,” agreed Charlie Reseigner, technology director for Pennsylvania’s Penn Manor School District. “But to credit the government, the eRate has gotten better over the years.”

He added, “I would like to have seen a national push at the high school level to prepare students for the high-tech work force.”

Gearing for a fight

Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the National Education Association, said he thinks the chances are “very slim to none” that Bush’s plan to consolidate the eRate with other technology programs will succeed.

“The eRate has broad, bipartisan support from Congress,” Packer said. “There will be a significant disruption as you shift [control of] the program to the Department of Education from the FCC.”

But “at least [Bush] has a technology program,” he said.

Packer said his organization would work closely with Rockefeller, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who also opposes plans to change the eRate program, and others to defeat Bush’s proposal.


U.S. Department of Education

The White House

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.

National School Boards Association

Rock Creek School District

Holton Unified School District

Penn Manor School District

National Education Association