Lately, the eRate has hit a rough patch. A few educators and some of their corporate fellow travelers have tarnished this vital program through too much sloth and sloppiness and a little outright fraud.

The wrongdoing is intolerable and must be stopped. Unfortunately, the worst thing eRate abuse does is provide cover for those who never liked funding public education in the first place–partisans of privatization who might even form secret plans to cut public school funding after the next election.

Opponents of the eRate–like Rep. Tom Tancredo, R.-Colo., who has introduced legislation to kill it–and those who’d prefer to let corporations and zealots operate our schools are shrewd enough to realize they’re out of step with the electorate at large. Most voters, on behalf of their children and grandchildren, still support public education. They’re far too numerous to thwart outright just now. So, instead, the stealth opponents of public education prefer to latch on to eRate problems and use those troubles to cut $2.25 billion a year in funding.

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  • What’s your take on eRate?
  • I’ll say it again: eRate abuse must stop. We need a lot more leaders like Arlene Ackerman, the sharp-eyed superintendent of San Francisco, who deserves far more credit than she got for slamming the brakes on the eRate scam in the City by the Bay.

    But while we denounce abuse, it would be well to put a few things in perspective–for instance:

    Of the nearly 40,000 eRate applications processed every year, only a miniscule percentage is even alleged to result in criminal wrongdoing. At a time of unprecedented eRate scrutiny, some 40 criminal investigations are believed to be under way.

    That’s one-tenth of one percent of the total eRate applications filed in one year alone, and the investigations cover potential wrongdoing going all the way back to the eRate’s inception in 1998.

    The eRate investigations reportedly involve $644 million in a program responsible for some $12 billion in total payouts. Now, $644 million is still a lot of money in my neighborhood, but let’s keep this real.

    A national alarm blares out when unused computer equipment purchased with eRate funds shows up in a school warehouse in Chicago or Puerto Rico, but did you hear Peep One when the Department of Defense (DoD) “lost” $1.2 billion worth of equipment? A study of DoD business practices released in March by the congressional General Accounting Office (GAO) found a $1.2 billion “discrepancy” between the materials shipped to Iraq and the materials acknowledged being received by military units in Iraq.

    Sad and discouraging as it is to find unused eRate equipment stacked in a warehouse, at least education officials knew where the equipment went. Who knows where that $1.2 billion in military equipment wound up?

    Things are always hazy in the fog of war, but how about this? The GAO found a $1.6 billion “discrepancy” between the DoD’s Information Technology (IT) budget and its detailed Capital Investments Reports for each IT initiative.

    Hmm, $1.2 billion here, $1.6 billion there. As the late Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen, R.-Ill., used to say, “… Soon, you’re talking real money.” Yet, the outcry from the vocal enemies of eRate waste has been–how shall I say . . . muted.

    But these are mere paperwork problems? OK, let’s take a look at some unambiguous wrongdoing. An American subsidiary of the Japanese electronics giant NEC recently paid a $4.7 million eRate fine. That’s a pretty big penalty.

    Now compare it to the $300 million in fines paid out in the past four years by Halliburton and nine other private contractors–for violations ranging from charging for military meals never served to delivering defective equipment to our troops. Some of these companies, please note, steadfastly deny their guilt–but they paid the fines all the same.

    The point: Every mammoth government program has problems. We should investigate them all, bring alleged wrongdoers before the bar of justice, fine and jail the guilty, clean up our act. But let’s not permit the relatively small number of problems of the eRate to eviscerate an essential source of funding for public education.

    It’s time to go on the offensive. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has informally asked state eRate coordinators to gather positive stories about how the eRate is helping provide telephone and internet access to schools and libraries. State coordinators should take the time to comply with that request.

    In fact, if you’re an educator and you send me an anecdote (250- to 1,000-word vignettes, say) about how the eRate has helped your schools, we’ll publish the best in an upcoming print issue of eSchool News and post all of them here on the site for the world to see. (eMail your good news eRate stories to eRate@eschoolnews.org) We’ll even send a link to the congressional investigators and the FCC.

    Save the eRate! We’re going to need it.

    Forum Discussion: What’s your take on eRate?