For the first time since President George W. Bush released his education plan, “No Child Left Behind,” in January, there are indications the Bush administration will not seek to merge the Federal Communications Commission’s eRate program into a state-based block grant with other technology programs administered by the Department of Education.

In his testimony before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce March 7th, Education Secretary Roderick Paige said Bush would not try to change the structure of the eRate, despite the president’s earlier statements to the contrary. Paige’s comment came during a hearing in which he testified about the President’s education plan. Congress is expected to tackle the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) this year.

White House spokeswoman Lindsay Kozburg confirmed Paige’s statement, saying Bush’s plan aims to consolidate six ESEA technology grants into a single block grant that—at this time—does not include the eRate.

“It’s not something that’s happening with this round of consolidations,” Kozburg said of restructuring the eRate. “What we are persuing right now is [the consolidation of] programs that are currently [administered by] the Department of Education.”

However, Kozburg said, the Bush administration continues to explore whether it would be feasible to merge the eRate into this single block grant at a later date.

“We are certainly reviewing whether we can, and should, consolidate the eRate,” Kozburg said. “It’s still going through a review process.”

The news was welcomed by key education groups that had lobbied the new administration to keep the eRate as a separate program administered by the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co., under the direction of the FCC.

In February, the International Society for Technology in Education and the Consortium for School Networking issued a joint position paper saying, in part, “Calls for the eRate to be moved to the Department of Education and folded into block grants are misguided. Not only is the legal authority for such action unresolved … but ending the program and placing it in the annual appropriations process would jeopardize the security of its funding and undermine the careful technology planning of thousands of eRate participants…”

“CoSN and other members of EdLiNC [the Education and Libraries Network Coalition, another eRate supporter] are pleased that the administration has backed away from folding the eRate into the Education Department,” said Keith Krueger, CoSN’s executive director.

As for extending the review process to determine whether it’s feasible to consolidate the eRate with other programs, Krueger said, “It’s probably been the most studied, most audited federal program,” but subjecting it to this process gives the eRate the chance to convert more supporters.

Currently, the eRate is written into the Telecommunications Act of 1996 as a universal service program paid for by telecommunications carriers. The eRate provides discounts to schools and libraries of up to $2.25 billion on telecommunications services.

Applying for eRate discounts is a complicated process, however, and some school officials said they would welcome the simplification that presumably would occur if the program were to be merged with Department of Education funding.

In other eRate news, the SLD announced that demand for Year Four of the eRate is estimated at $5.787 billion—an all-time high—from 37,188 applications.

In fact, SLD predicts it won’t be able to fund internal connections (the wiring, routers, and switches necessary to bring internet access into classrooms) for even the neediest schools—those eligible for 90-percent discounts—for the first time ever.

Links:

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

Schools and Libraries Division
http://www.sl.universalservice.org

Consortium for School Networking
http://www.cosn.org