The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is planning to hold an eRate symposium this fall to highlight success stories from school and library recipients nationwide. Sources close to the eRate see the event as a much-needed attempt to offset negative publicity surrounding the $2.25 billion-a-year program, which provides discounts on telecommunications services and internet access to eligible institutions.

The FCC said the Oct. 6 event will feature examples of how schools and libraries are using a variety of broadband technologies to enhance teaching and learning as a result of their eRate discounts.

Panels, made up of applicants and vendors, will discuss key issues concerning the use of broadband technologies for educational purposes. In addition, symposium attendees can expect demonstrations and technology exhibits.

Alleged eRate abuses in Puerto Rico made the image of this San Juan warehouse a rallying cry for the program’s opponents. (Photo courtsey of U.S. House of Representatives)

The FCC is looking for school or library officials who would like to tell their story at the symposium. Best practices of particular interest to the agency would include ways that states have leveraged eRate discounts to take advantage of other funding sources and how broadband infrastructure, paid for with eRate discounts, has spurred regional broadband deployment.

Anyone interested in presenting at the symposium can eMail Sarah Whitesell, the FCC’s associate chief of strategic planning and policy analysis, at edsymposium@fcc.gov

The event is free and open to school and library applicants, state eRate coordinators, vendors, or anyone else who would like to attend. Registration details are not yet available, Whitesell said, but the symposium will also be webcast.

“I think it would be refreshing to get some good news out into the public instead of one horror story after another,” said Greg Weisiger, Virginia’s eRate coordinator.

The FCC has asked state eRate coordinators for help in rounding up volunteers to tell their stories. Despite the fact that the program has approved more than 30,000 applications a year for the past six years, Wesiger said, “I’m having trouble finding volunteers.”

He speculates that applicants are reluctant to participate because they are either bogged down with their duties or frustrated by the program’s lengthy and cumbersome application process.

Bob Bocher, state eRate coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, said July is just a hard time in general to recruit school technology employees to volunteer.

“I’m pleased that the FCC is going to [hold a symposium], because there are a lot of success stories out there,” Bocher said. “I think people need to be reminded–on Capitol Hill or in the hinterland–that the program has done a lot of good for a lot of people.”

For example, he said, the Germantown School District, located north of Milwaukee, used to receive $75,000 a year for technology spending before the state’s budget dried up. This year, however, the district secured $65,000 from the eRate, allowing the district to nearly break even on its usual technology spending.

eRate advocates hope stories like this will counteract a succession of reports on program waste, fraud, and abuse that have been highly publicized in the media.

Most recently, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported July 11 that a Georgia state agency spent $19 million in eRate funds on a project that would bring satellite images to classroom computers.

But, according to the newspaper, the contract was awarded to a three-man company, called Spherus Corp., that lacked the technical expertise needed to execute the project–and now much of the equipment, which has become obsolete, is being stored unused in district warehouses or school storage closets.

That Journal-Constitution story follows on the heels of earlier reports of eRate abuses in Atlanta, San Francisco, and Puerto Rico, among other locations. (See “Scandals pummel eRate”.)

In the July issue of eSchool News, Editor and Publisher Gregg Downey issued a call to educators similar to the FCC’s: Send us your eRate success stories, and we’ll publish the best in an upcoming issue. We’ll also post them to our web site and send the link to members of Congress who are investigating the program. You can eMail your eRate best practices to eRate@eschoolnews.org.

“When educators answer the FCC’s call,” Downey said, “they should consider sending copies of their reports to eSchool News for broader distribution. It’s in the field’s best interest to disseminate eRate success stories as widely as possible”

Links:

Federal Communications Commission

Germantown (Wis.) School District

From the Publisher, July: Save the eRate