eRate chaos looms for schools

Many schools and libraries won’t find out how much eRate funding they are getting for the 2004 funding year–which began July 1–until at least December, eRate officials told eSchool News immediately following a Senate hearing on the eRate Oct. 5.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation convened the hearing to address highly publicized instances of waste, fraud, and abuse of the $2.25 billion-a-year program, which gives schools and libraries discounts of up to 90 percent on their internet and telephone service and wiring.

Much of the hearing’s focus, however, centered on why eRate officials stopped mailing funding commitments to applicants right before the school year began with virtually no warning.

“The policy, process, and impact leading up to this decision is unclear and needs to be resolved,” said Sen. Jay. Rockefeller, D-W.V. “I heard from schools that this suspension of funding is causing significant disruption to their operations, and it’s inconceivable to me that funding was stopped just as the school year was beginning.”

“I share your concern, particularly since no one was notified, including the Congress or members of this committee. It’s very disturbing,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., committee chairman.

Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., called the funding freeze a “drastic reaction” that has cost the nation money and prevented schools and libraries from getting the funds they need. “I’ve got 33 or 34 [schools] in my state that I’ve got phone calls from already, and these are all rural schools,” Burns said. “These funds are vital … for communicating with the outside world.”

Frank Gumper, chairman of the board of directors for the Universal Service Administrative Co. (USAC), the agency charged with administering the program, explained that the funding stopped because new government accounting procedures, which the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) directed USAC to adopt by Oct. 1 of this year, require USAC to have the money in hand before promising it to schools and libraries.

Previously, USAC would promise eRate discounts to applicants–by mailing them funding commitment letters–long before it had collected that money from telecommunication companies. USAC currently collects the money by billing telecoms each month for about 8.9 percent of their sales.

The long-term implications of this accounting change are still unknown, but Gumper said it seems the move will permanently change when funding commitment letters are issued for each year going forward.

“The new commitments will start once we’ve collected enough money,” Gumper said. “Right now, we anticipate … that by the end of November we should be able to start to make commitments. However, we will have more commitments available than we will have funds on hand.”

Undoubtedly, this will leave schools and libraries nationwide without any funding decisions in the near future.

“These are people who are paying these bills now, and there’s uncertainty whether they are going to get reimbursed for them,” George McDonald, vice president of USAC’s Schools and Libraries Division, told eSchool News.

The funding delays are having widespread repercussions nationwide.

“I’m literally receiving several calls a day from school districts that have been negatively impacted by not receiving these letters,” said Mary Kusler, a legislative specialist for the American Association of School Administrators.

Kusler said it seems the FCC is “cherry picking” who gets affected. The federal courts, in 1998, ruled that universal service funds are not to be considered federal funds, Kusler said. “Holding them to federal accounting standards says something differently,” she said.

Kusler also disapproved of the “secrecy” that seems to be surrounding this decision, saying it “works against the spirit” of the program. (See related story, below.)

Besides leaving schools in the lurch for the current program year, the change also impacts schools’ ability to apply for 2005 funding.

It’s already uncertain when the next application window will open, McDonald said. According to the program’s rules, the window is supposed to open 60 days after the final eligible services list is published in the Federal Register, which had not happened yet at press time. Unless the FCC waives this rule, the window–which has customarily opened at the beginning of November–won’t open until at least December.

Making matters worse, USAC recently lost millions of dollars from the eRate fund because of the switchover to government accounting procedures. USAC had invested about $3 billion in government bond and money market funds, generating an extra $25 million in interest, which in turn would lower the amount required from telecoms. But the new government accounting procedures require all government funds to be invested in U.S. Treasuries or cash. As a result, USAC officials were forced, over a two-day period, to liquidate the agency’s investment portfolio and convert the funds to U.S. Treasuries at an estimated loss of nearly $5 million in face value–not to mention the amount of potential earnings lost from interest.

“We thought having money invested with very reliable corporations, funds that were backed 100 percent by government securities, was reasonable,” Gumper told eSchool News. “They [the FCC] come along and say, ‘No, those are obligations of the government.’ If we had held [the investments] to maturity, we would have gotten the full value.”

McCain said the Oct. 5 Senate hearing “is just the beginning.” The hearing was brief compared with those held by the House, but it’s apparent the Senate has been paying close attention to the eRate scandals.

“Unscrupulous vendors are not the only problem. There is enough blame to go around,” McCain said. He said the FCC’s rule changes have been “reactive and too gentle,” and USAC’s audits have been “too few, too late, and too forgiving.”

He added: “Congress is also responsible. We created the program, and despite its endemic problems, its popularity makes it clear that it is not going away. It is incumbent upon us to ensure, with thorough oversight or legislation, if necessary, that the eRate functions as intended.”

The FCC declined the Senate committee’s invitation to participate in the hearing.

See these related links:

Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation
http://commerce.senate.gov

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

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CoSN profiles ‘must-have’ technologies

Datacasting, radio frequency identification (RFID) chips, student web logs (blogs), and intelligent essay graders are among a dozen technologies likely to emerge as must-have solutions in the nation’s schools, according to a report unveiled Nov. 3 by the Washington, D.C.-based Consortium for School Networking (CoSN).

The third in a series of CoSN-sponsored reports dedicated to emerging technologies, “Hot Technologies for K-12 Schools” examines the usefulness of such heretofore little-known technologies in schools and begins to explore how such innovations might be used to transform learning in the 21st century.

To develop the guide, CoSN’s Emerging Technologies Committee (ETC) initially identified five key educational issues schools are facing today–the instructional process, assessment and evaluation, diverse learning styles, the building of communities, and improving the efficiency of school administration.

In considering which technologies to include, the report’s authors devised a list of technologies they felt would not only make a fundamental impact on education, but would be economically and financially feasible enough for schools to begin integrating sometime in the very near future.

“Most schools embracing technology today have primarily focused on its deployment for administrative purposes or for the back office,” said Keith Krueger, CoSN’s chief executive officer, in a statement. “Our hope is that this guide will provide technology leaders with a strategic understanding of technologies that can truly transform their schools over the next three to five years.”

On the instructional front, one technology that is just beginning to crop up in schools is datacasting. A descendant of streaming video, which enables students to view snippets of teacher-selected educational videos from their desktops, datacasting provides similar capabilities–but with higher-quality results, says Gene Broderson, director of education for the nonprofit Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Unlike streaming video–which has been criticized for hogging precious bandwidth across school networks and sometimes appearing blurred and sluggish, Broderson said–datacasting enables students to view content in full-screen, broadcast-quality video and sound.

Instead of streaming videos directly to students’ desktops, Broderson said, datacasting lets educators download whatever content they need to a central server, so it can be accessed whenever it’s needed. Often, he said, the videos are accompanied by corresponding lesson plans, interactive student assignments, and other teaching materials.

In the assessment and evaluation category, CoSN’s report looks closely at emerging concepts known as pattern analysis and performance projection. According to Karen Greenwood Henke, who helped spearhead research efforts on the project, “these are technologies that help administrators make sense of the data schools are collecting.”

With the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) demanding a move toward more data-driven decision making in the nation’s schools, Henke said, administrators must consider solutions that are capable of analyzing patterns “not really apparent to educators.”

Henke suggested pattern analysis and performance-projection tools could be used to help gauge how students are likely to perform on standardized tests. Through personalized charts and graphs, she said, the technology will provide educators with a way to more accurately target remediation for struggling students.

“Universal design” is another emerging technology concept garnering attention from the nation’s top ed-tech enthusiasts. With the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) slated to take place during the next session of Congress, Raymond Rose, vice president of the Concord Consortium, a nonprofit educational research and development organization based in Concord, Mass., says the pressure is on for schools to begin looking at solutions that meet all students’ needs–and not just those with severe disabilities.

Under the concept of universal design, Rose said, technologies are beginning to emerge that can be used for dual purposes–to the benefit of everyone within the school system. The concept, he said, is similar to that of building a wheelchair ramp. Though the ramp is built specifically for students confined to a chair, it can be equally useful for students with temporary ailments–or even those with too much in their hands, who might have difficulty navigating traditional steps.

“Schools need to think about tools that will meet all students’ needs,” Rose said.

According to the report, administrators also are increasingly concerned with technologies that spur greater community involvement and communication throughout the school system.

Technologies such as programmable phone systems, which enable administrators to send out pre-recorded messages to parents and stakeholders, are already coming in handy in some parts of the country, says Tom Rolfes, education IT manager for Nebraska’s office of the chief information officer.

Instead of relying solely on television and radio stations to get the word out about school closings on snow days, for instance, schools can use their own prerecorded messages, sent out simultaneously to every parent of every student. That way, he said, administrators needn’t worry if students will show up at school only to find themselves locked out in the cold.

Rolfes also touched on the growing importance of comprehensive student information systems used to track and monitor student progress, as well as the use of blogs as an increasingly popular tool for building stronger school communities–spurring much-needed communication among students, parents, and educators.

Also highlighted in the report: a concept known as RFID.

Darrell Walery, director of technology for Consolidated High School District 230 in Orland Park, Ill., projects the use of RFID chips–tiny microprocessors capable of holding and storing all types of student information, from lunch accounts to daily student schedules–eventually will help administrators keep better attendance records and more accurately track inventory of library books and supplies.

Though the technology still remains cost-prohibitive for some schools–with RFID readers costing in the range of $1,000 to $2,000 apiece–the chips themselves are relatively cheap, Walery said.

And that’s not the best part.

Walery reports that the attendance-taking capabilities alone have saved some early adopters up to 90 hours of instructional time per day district-wide, adding, “This is something that is going to be important in the next few years.”

Other technologies covered in the report include highly portable large storage devices; digital assessments; sound-field amplification; multisensory, customized learning tools; and advanced learning management systems.

When deciding which technology options to pursue, CoSN offers these four suggestions: (1) look for solutions that will engage and empower students; (2) think about how the technology will be implemented and used before you purchase it; (3) vet purchasing decisions with concerned stakeholders, including community members and parents; and (4) try to identify unintended consequences–from potential instructional and legal hurdles to security issues, privacy concerns, technical glitches, and financial headaches.

“A critical factor in the success of deploying technology within a school environment is that it be embraced not only by teachers but by parents and the community as well,” said Steve Rappaport, chairman of CoSN’s ETC. “To broaden adoption, it’s important these technologies are convenient, customized, content-rich, collaborative, creative, and compliant.”

A final version of the report is expected to be available no later than Nov. 15.

Links:

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

eSN Online Store (upon final report’s availability)
http://www.eschoolnews.com/catalog/index.php?cPath=26

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Canadian district draws line at six-year-old computers

The Powell River Peak of Powell River, British Columbia, reports on a local school district’s plan to replace all computers that are more than seven years old. The district will purchase 15 new PCs and lease 200 more in the coming weeks, and it hopes that in the future none of its schools will contain a computer more than six years old.

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Third-graders get glimpse of porn video in school VCR mishap

The Dallas Morning News reports that third-graders at a local elementary school accidentally saw a brief clip from a pornographic film after watching another tape about the three branches of government. A teacher did not realize that the unmarked tape, which had been sitting in the school VCR, contained illicit images. When it was placed back in the VCR after the educational tape was shown, it began to play a pornographic film. (Note: This site requires registration.)

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One-day class helps Georgia parents keep their kids safe online

The Rockdale Citizen of Rockdale County, Ga., reports that local parents plan to attend a class that will help them increase their children’s safety on the internet. The free class, presented by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, offers tips for parents whose children spend increasing amounts of unsupervised time on the internet.

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Florida students realize dreams at new learning center

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports that the new Clark Advanced Learning Center in Port Salerno, Fla. presents itself as a model for future high-tech schools. The learning center, which cost $9.5 million to build, was fortunate enough to receive a $600,000 technology grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

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Pittsburgh program bringing broadband to district’s families

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that Pittsburgh Public Schools will run a pilot project intended to get more students online at high speed. Beginning in December, the district wil provide deeply discounted broadband access to the homes of more than 500 students. It will also offer training sessions. Officials hope the school board will approve the pilot program and that they will eventually use federal funding to make the access available to more than 10,000 families by next fall.

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Scavenger hunt gives Seattle teens a taste of new technology

The Seattle Times reports on a local high school competition in which student teams were sent on an unusual scavenger hunt in downtown Seattle. The students, carrying several electronic gadgets, were instructed to locate a number of offbeat items. They received the instructions via cellphone and used a new technology to determine how many points each item was worth.

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Armed with grants, Rochester area schools eye tech buy

Rochester Business Journal reports that 18 Rochester-area schools are receiving grants from ExxonMobil. The oil giant’s Educational Alliance Program gives local retailers a chance to make grants to nearby schools. The money will likely be used to enhance school technology programs, as was the case with most Educational Alliance Program grants in the past year.

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Virginia district gets serious about tech, overhauls system

The Coalfield Progress of Norton, Va., reports that the local school board wants to bridge its digital divide, and has asked its technology coordinator to completely upgrade its system. The district is investing about $90,000 in new hardware and an additional $40,000 in annual internet service. Some of the money will be covered by the Virginia Department of Education.

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