Traveling on assignment through America’s heartland not long ago, we were in search of a suitable restaurant where we could catch up with a few colleagues and friends. We were perusing one of those online dining guides that features assessments by actual customers.

One scathing review caught my attention in particular. “Don’t patronize this overpriced eatery,” it read, “even if somebody else will pick up the tab.”

Needless to say . . .

Yet some of those in a position to know complain that educators using the eRate too often fail to avoid bad eRate deals the same way we avoided that overpriced restaurant.

Some of those we met with are in a perfect position to observe the buying behavior of a large number of school districts. One of those colleagues helps education institutions select and install the technology most appropriate for the job. His firm gets paid regardless of which brand of equipment the schools ultimately choose–so, economically, it’s all the same to him.

Yet due diligence is not standard operating procedure when it comes to school eRate purchases, he declared, and this is cause for genuine concern. “Outrage” is the word that leaps to my mind.

Based on extensive observation and even some actual research, this colleague insisted that too many school tech buyers–if they picked restaurants the way they assign eRate orders–would cheerfully head straight for the joint so roundly disparaged in that restaurant review, simply because somebody else was going to pick up the tab . . . or 90 percent of it, anyway.

Clearly, this has to stop. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bouillabaisse.

As we report in our Front Page story this month, some of those weighing in on potential eRate reforms are calling for jacking up the share schools and libraries must pay when making purchases under the eRate. A twenty or thirty percent share, some contend, would discourage school tech buyers from ordering equipment they don’t need or without regard to the price.

Would it really deter a spendthrift from patronizing the overpriced restaurant if leaving the tip were the only tariff? Possibly. But this much is certain: It also would bar far more buyers from gaining access to any menu at all, even those bills of fare that are entirely wholesome and economical.

Before this gastronomical metaphor leads to an incurable case of acid reflux disease, let’s simply say most schools–especially those most in need–can’t afford to pay more for their eRate purchases. The majority that shop around, know the marketplace, research their purchases, spend taxpayers’ money as though it were their own should not be penalized for the profligacy of the minority, even when that minority is far too numerous.

In response to the program’s most virulent critics, the message on the eRate should be: Mend it; don’t end it.

But right now–with or without pressure–every school tech buyer within arm’s length of a Form 470 should resolve to clean up his or her own act. eRate waste due to sloth and indifference is something any educator should be ashamed of and must stop.

Every dime in eRate discounts collected by school districts that haven’t used sound purchasing procedures is ten cents fellow educators can’t use to advance education and empower their students. If you fear you’ve ever been guilty, resolve to stop it right now. Please.

The Federal Communications Commission and the Schools and Libraries Division are right to be searching for ways to reform the eRate. At press time, they had some thoughtful and innovative recommendations before them but some unwise ones as well.

Here’s hoping they will digest the best and discard the rest.

Bon appetit.