eRate delays require more work, creativity

If you’re one of the thousands of eRate applicants still waiting to hear about your 2004 funding requests, eRate consultants have some important advice: Reapply now for discounts on these same products and services to cover all your bases before the 2005 deadline passes.

On Jan. 11, the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co.–the agency that administers the $2.25 billion-a-year program–sent letters notifying 2,700 applicants they would be getting $510 million in eRate discounts for the 2004 program year. With this 11th wave of letters, the SLD said it expects to resume issuing funding commitments on 2004 applications every two weeks.

But even after this latest round of notifications, at least 3,300 applicants still await a decision on roughly $800 million to help pay for their 2004 internet, telephone, and internal wiring costs. The delay also makes it difficult for these applicants to apply for the 2005 program year before the Feb. 17 deadline.

The Gadsden City Schools in Alabama, whose 15 schools serve 5,300 students, is one such district that is waiting to find out if its approximately $500,000 in internal connections requests will be funded. The district did receive notice in late November that the telecommunications portion of its 2004 eRate application had been approved. “We want to upgrade the infrastructure in our schools from 10 to 100 megabits per second,” said David Asbury, Gadsden City Schools’ technology coordinator. “We are just continuing to use what we have in place for now.”

Because of the delay, the district has, for the first time, reapplied for the exact same request two years in a row, knowing it might simply cancel its 2005 request if the 2004 funding comes through. “It’s certainly a lot of time and effort to have to go through that process again, hopefully without need,” Asbury said. “It’s a lot of duplication of effort on our part because they are so far behind” in funding 2004 applications.

Receiving such late notice on its telecommunications funding also meant the district had to scrounge up local funds to pay for its telephone and internet service, which costs about $168,000 annually.

“I’m very supportive of the program. We would have to shut a lot of things down if we didn’t have the program. Even though it has been a burden this year, we look at it as a burden that is worthwhile,” Asbury said. “This year has been particularly difficult because of the late notification of telecommunications funding, [so] we had to search for those funds internally.”

The SLD said it is resuming its biweekly issuance of funding commitment letters now that President Bush has signed an exemption to the Anti-Deficiency Act (ADA).

“If you haven’t heard from us in 2004, you are probably pretty anxious, and we hope to get those letters out as soon as possible,” SLD spokesman Mel Blackwell said. He added that it’s unlikely all 2004 letters would be sent before the 2005 filing window closes.

Historically, the eRate’s funding years have overlapped–but the delay in issuing 2004 funding commitment letters was exacerbated by the Federal Communications Commission’s need to adhere to the ADA, a federal law requiring government entities to have the money in hand before promising it. (See “eRate chaos looms for schools,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showstory.cfm?ArticleID=5341.)

As a result, the FCC stopped issuing funding commitments Aug. 3. The majority of 2004 applications languished unanswered until the end of November, when the SLD released 5,300 letters worth $317 million. Frustrated by the slow trickle of funding commitments, the education and library communities strongly lobbied members of Congress to draft and pass legislation that would exempt the eRate from complying with the ADA.

Fortunately for eRate applicants nationwide, Congress passed a bill that exempts the eRate from complying with the ADA until Dec. 31, 2005, and Bush signed it into law Dec. 23.

The SLD is encouraging all applicants to apply as early as possible for 2005, even if they don’t know what funding they will get for the 2004 program year. “Don’t sleep [through] the date,” Blackwell said. “Don’t wait until the last minute.”

Even though the 2005 filing window closes Feb. 17, Form 470 applications–which indicate which products and services applicants are seeking bids for–must be filed no later than Thursday, Jan. 20, as rules stipulate that these forms must be posted to the SLD web site for 28 days before filing a Form 471.

“It’s always good advice never to wait to the last minute. Things can always go wrong, whether it’s coming down with the flu or computer crashes,” said Sara Fitzgerald, vice president of communications for eRate consulting firm Funds for Learning LLC.

Fitzgerald and others recommend that applicants reapply for what they requested in 2004 if they haven’t received a decision yet. If the 2004 funding comes through, applicants can always cancel or cut back their 2005 requests.

On the new Form 471, applicants would check a box indicating that the request is a duplicate of an application already pending. In fact, there are new versions of all forms this year. The new versions beef up certifications for items such as technology plans and the applicant’s match in an effort to curb waste, fraud, and abuse.

Despite the persistent overlap in funding years, most applicants and school and library advocacy groups are relieved that funding will resume normally for at least the next year.

“We’re very happy that the ADA waiver went through,” said Mary Kusler, legislative specialist for the American Association of School Administrators (AASA). “There might be a backlog of getting letters out, but at least they are getting out.”

Though schools and libraries would benefit from receiving early notice of their funding commitments, “it’s not unusual in the program’s history that applicants are making requests without knowing what they got for the prior funding year,” Fitzgerald said. “Last time I checked, there were still $200 million in 2003 requests that were still pending.”

She added: “SLD hopes to approve more applications earlier, but every year things seem to conspire against them.”

Links:

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

Gadsden City Schools
http://www.gcs.k12.al.us

Funds for Learning LLC
http://www.fundsforlearning.com

American Association of School Administrators
http://www.aasa.org

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ED’s seven recommendations

Here is the verbatim text of ED’s “Seven Major Action Steps and Recommendations”

1. STRENGTHEN LEADERSHIP
For public education to benefit from the rapidly evolving development of information and communication technology, leaders at every level–school, district and state–must not only supervise, but provide informed, creative and ultimately transformative leadership for systematic change.

Recommendations for states, districts and individual schools include:

Related story:
  • ED outlines new
    tech priorities

    • Invest in leadership development programs to ensure a new generation of tech-savvy leaders.
    • Retool administrator education programs to provide training in technology decision-making and organizational change.
    • Develop partnerships between schools, higher education and the community.
    • Encourage creative technology partnerships with the business community.
    • Empower students’ participation in the planning process.

    2. CONSIDER INNOVATIVE BUDGETING
    Needed technology often can be successfully funded through innovative restructuring and reallocation of existing budgets to realize efficiencies and cost savings. The new focus begins with the educational objective and evaluates funding requests–for technology or other programs–in terms of how they support student learning.

    Funding and budgetary recommendations for states, schools and districts include:

    • Consider a systemic restructuring of budgets to realize efficiencies, cost savings and reallocations. This can include reallocations in expenditures on textbooks, instructional supplies, space and computer labs.
    • Consider leasing with 3-5 year refresh cycles.
    • Create a technology innovation fund to carry funds over yearly budget cycles.

    3. IMPROVE TEACHER TRAINING
    Teachers have more resources available through technology than ever before, but have not received sufficient training in the effective use of technology to enhance learning. Teachers need access to research, examples and innovations as well as staff development to learn best practices. The U.S. Department of Education is currently funding research studies to evaluate the effective use of technology for teaching and learning.

    Recommendations for states, districts and individual schools include:

    • Improve the preparation of new teachers in the use of technology.
    • Ensure that every teacher has the opportunity to take online learning courses.
    • Improve the quality and consistency of teacher education through measurement, accountability and increased technology resources.
    • Ensure that every teacher knows how to use data to personalize instruction.

    4. SUPPORT E-LEARNING AND VIRTUAL SCHOOLS
    In the past five years there has been an explosive growth in organized online instruction and “virtual” schools, making it possible for students at all levels to receive high quality supplemental or full courses of instruction personalized to their needs. Traditional schools are turning to these services to expand opportunities and choices for students and professional development for teachers.

    Recommendations for states, districts and schools include:

    • Provide every student access to e-learning.
    • Enable every teacher to participate in e-learning training.
    • Encourage the use of e-learning options to meet No Child Left Behind requirements for highly qualified teachers, supplemental services and parental choice.
    • Explore creative ways to fund e-learning opportunities.
    • Develop quality measures and accreditation standards for e-learning that mirror those traditionally required for course credit.

    5. ENCOURAGE BROADBAND ACCESS
    Most public schools, colleges and universities now have access to high-speed, high-capacity broadband communications. However, broadband access 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year can help teachers and students realize the full potential of this technology. Recommendations to states, districts and schools include:

    • Thoroughly evaluate existing technology infrastructure and access to broadband to determine its current capacities and explore ways to ensure its reliability.
    • Ensure that broadband is available all the way to the end-user for data management, online and technology-based assessments, e-learning, and accessing high-quality digital content.
    • Ensure adequate technical support to manage and maintain computer networks, maximize educational uptime and plan for future needs.

    6. MOVE TOWARD DIGITAL CONTENT
    A perennial problem for schools, teachers and students is that textbooks are increasingly expensive, quickly outdated and physically cumbersome. A move away from reliance on textbooks to the use of multimedia or online information (digital content) offers many advantages, including cost savings, increased efficiency, improved accessibility, and enhancing learning opportunities in a format that engages today’s web-savvy students.

    Recommendations to states and districts include:

    • Ensure that teachers and students are adequately trained in the use of online content.
    • Encourage that each student has ubiquitous access to computers and connectivity.
    • Consider costs and benefits of online content, aligned with rigorous state academic standards, as part of a systemic approach to creating resources for students to customize learning to their individual needs.

    7. INTEGRATE DATA SYSTEMS
    Integrated, interoperable data systems are the key to better allocation of resources, greater management efficiency, and online assessments of student performance that empower educators to transform teaching and personalize instruction.

    Recommendations to states, districts and schools include:

    • Establish a plan to integrate data systems so that administrators and educators have the information they need to increase efficiency and improve student learning.
    • Use data from both administrative and instructional systems to understand relationships between decisions, allocation of resources and student achievement.
    • Use assessment results to inform and differentiate instruction for every child.
    • Ensure Interoperability. For example, implement School Interoperability Framework (SIF) Compliance Certification as a requirement in all RFPs and purchasing decisions.

    (Source: U.S. Department of Education)

    Related story:
    Ed outlines new tech priorities

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    TCEA ready for five memorable days

    Welcome to the eSchool News Conference Information Center‘s special coverage of the Texas Computer Education Association’s 25th Annual Convention & Exposition, taking place in Austin from Feb. 7-11, 2005.

    At least 12,000 attendees are expected at the Austin Convention Center for this event, and in the weeks ahead, the eSN Conference Information Center will strive to help them prepare for TCEA 2005.

    Right up until the opening of the convention, you’ll find schedules, information about featured speakers, and lists of attending vendors right here. Keep coming back over the next month to see additions to this Center. Even if you can’t make it to Austin, you’ll reap many benefits of this event simply by bookmarking eSN’s conference coverage.

    Beginning on Feb. 7, we’ll have our live, real-time coverage of TCEA 2005. That includes daily news, information, and photos taken at the show. No other educational technology publication covers conferences like eSchool News, which goes one step further with reports on the free sessions from our volunteer Conference Correspondents. These educators will review many of the more than 300 free sessions scheduled for TCEA. You’ll get insight from people who agreed to help us cover TCEA just because they want to help other educators integrate technology into their curricula.

    TCEA is one of the largest annual state educational technology conferences, and it is staged by the largest state ed-tech organization. The Texas Computer Education Association traces its roots back to 1980, and has played a major role in many education-related success stories that came out of Texas over the past 25 years. TCEA’s primary focus is “integrating technology into the K-12 environment and providing members with state-of-the-art information through conferences, workshops, newsletters, the Internet, and collaborations with higher education and business.”

    With 20 Regional Education Service Centers in Texas, TCEA reaches out to at the grassroots level throughout the year, while bringing all of its constituents together for its annual February convention. This year’s event, the Silver Anniversary, promises to be one of the most exciting in the conference’s history.

    Organizers say the focus of TCEA 2005 will be “the leading edge of technology training and the latest technology products.” They point to a number of highlights, including a planned presentation by the Charles Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin, which will conduct workshops on the latest concepts and innovations in teaching math in K-12 schools.

    Speeches are a highlight of any ed-tech conference, and TCEA’s Feb. 9 Opening General Session keynote from 2000 Disney American Teacher of the Year Ron Clark should be no exception.

    Clark, a North Carolina native, moved to East Harlem in New York to help inner-city students in need of good teachers. His career in education has been so inspiring that Oprah Winfrey gave him her “Phenomenal Man” award and the ABC network will film a Movie of the Week based on his life.

    In Austin, Clark will speak about “Teaching Through Adversity, Facing Challenges and Making A Difference.” Clark is author of The Essential 55, which includes the 55 expectations he has of his students.

    Other keynote speeches will be delivered by Willard Daggett, president of the International Center for Leadership in Education, and motivational speaker Emory Austin. A Thursday afternoon luncheon will feature award-winning guitarist and speaker Mike Rayburn, who was three times named Americas Campus Entertainer of the Year in a national poll of college students.

    In addition to TCEA’s free sessions and keynote speeches, there will be hundreds of company exhibits in Austin. Convention organizers say TCEA will:

    • feature more than 600 ed-tech exhibits of products and services for instructional and administrative software, Internet, LAN/WAN, staff development, desktop/network security, and more.
  • include the sixth annual TCEA State Robotics Contest  set for Wednesday, Feb. 9. The double-elimination contest goes eight rounds to determine the winning teams in two divisions. About 400 Texas students are expected to participate in the contest.
  • present more than 150 workshops on top of the more than 300 free sessions designed to help educators learn to use technology effectively in their classroom instruction.
  • Links:

    TCEA 2005–Information for Attendees http://www.tcea.org/convention/2005/Attendees/Default.asp

    TCEA 2005–Information for Exhibitors http://www.tcea.org/convention/2005/Exhibitors/default.asp

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    Millions in scholarship money up for grabs in big robotics contest

    The Arizona Republic reports on local high school students competing in the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Robotics competition in Phoenix. The competition in Phoenix is part of a worldwide event involving 24,000 students who are chasing a total of $5 million in college scholarships.

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    Growing popularity of blogs helping inspire young journalists

    The Express-Times of Easton, N.J., reports on the blogging boom, particularly as it relates to high school and college students. The article examines the value of blogs in education and quotes a former features editor of the newspaper who now supports the use of blogs in journalism classes.

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    Text-messaging teens run up major bills for their parents

    cNet’s News.com reports that many high-school and college-aged students are costing their parents a lot of extra money due to their excessive use of text messaging on cell phones. Teens have embraced “texting” more than any other group in the society, but the habit can become very expensive in a hurry.

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    ED outlines new tech priorities

    Stronger leadership, creative financing, access to broadband internet service, more digital content, and interoperable data systems are among the new priorities spelled out in the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED’s) long-awaited release of its latest National Education Technology Plan (NETP).

    Pairing educators’ suggestions with parent comments and input from thousands of students across the country, the plan–released Jan. 7–establishes a “national vision” and strategy for the effective use of technology in the nation’s schools. The final document, which ED plans to submit to Congress later this year, includes recommendations, case studies, and an array of online resources designed to help educators prepare students for success in the 21st century.

    To realize its vision for educational technology, ED offers seven recommendations for policy makers and school leaders:

    • Strengthen ed-tech leadership at the state and local levels;
    • Consider innovative budgeting;
    • Improve teacher training;
    • Support eLearning and virtual schooling initiatives;
    • Encourage broadband access;
    • Move toward digital content; and
    • Integrate data systems. (For more information, see “Seven Major Action Steps.”)

    Related item:
  • Full text of ED’s seven recommendations

    “We must rethink education to take advantage of the tools available through the internet and how we can better engage the students,” said Susan Patrick, head of ED’s Office of Educational Technology and a chief architect of the plan. “A fundamental question that emerged from the feedback we received was, ‘Are our schools ready for today’s students?'”

    Patrick said the goal is to shift the focus from counting the number of computers in the nation’s classrooms to understanding how technology can be used to better all facets of the education system, from data management and reporting in the front office to student learning at school and, in many cases, from home.

    In an age when nearly 90 percent of the nation’s classrooms are connected to the internet and 9 in 10 children between the ages of 5 and 17 use computers, ED did something it had failed to do while drafting the nation’s two previous ed-tech plans: It asked students for their opinions on what should be done to improve the use of technology in their schools.

    “Today’s students are far more sophisticated in the use of technology and in understanding the intricacies of what is possible, and they want to help us transform education,” said Patrick. “Students are empowering themselves in ways we never would have imagined.”

    The response, she said, has been overwhelming. Through a national survey program conducted by the California-based nonprofit NetDay, more than 210,000 students reportedly signed on to voice their concerns and make suggestions for ways to increase the role technology plays in learning. (See “Students see tech as necessity, say schools fall short.”)

    “The report’s recommendation to strengthen leadership and empower student participation in the technology planning process will be a significant step forward to realizing the vision articulated in the plan,” said NetDay CEO Julie Evans.

    According to the report, the technology that has so dramatically changed the world outside our schools is now changing the learning and teaching environment from within. This change is driven by an increasingly competitive global economy and the students themselves, who are “born and comfortable in the age of the internet.”

    In many states, the explosive growth of online instruction and virtual schools is already complementing traditional instruction with high-quality courses tailored to the needs of individual students, the report stated. At least 15 states provide some form of virtual schooling to supplement regular classes or provide for special needs, and about 25 percent of all K-12 public schools now offer some form of eLearning or virtual instruction.

    With the advent of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001, talk of increased accountability and assessment has dominated the national conversation, giving rise to a focus in this report on the value of online assessments and improved data management.

    Proponents of the technology have long held that more sophisticated data management systems should enable school leaders to make more informed decisions and further tailor their instruction to the needs of individual students.

    “We haven’t harnessed the power of technology to inform daily decisions,” said Patrick in June, speaking to a group of educators at the National Educational Computing Conference. “There are places doing this, but we have to move forward as a nation.”

    Her hope, she said, is that the new plan will help schools do this. And maybe it already is.

    Larry Berger, chief executive officer for Wireless Generation Inc., a company that specializes in educational assessments and other administrative programs designed for use on handheld computers, pointed out that while previous ed-tech plans have focused almost solely on educational uses for technology, ED’s latest effort also begins to explore the need for better technology integration on the back end, including the delivery of critical student assessments and data management solutions.

    From an industry standpoint, he said, this kind of federal guidance is extremely important, because it gives service providers a framework on which to base their solutions.

    But while the plan was meant to include the voices of all students, some people question whether it accounts for students with disabilities and those with special needs.

    “The needs of disenfranchised populations, such as minority students, are mentioned, but conspicuously absent are the needs of students with disabilities,” said a release from the National Center on Disability and Access to Education (NCDAE) in response to the report.

    “We certainly applaud efforts to ensure that American students benefit from the explosive growth of technology in education, but what about the more than 6 million students with disabilities?” asked Martin Blair, NCDAE’s policy director.

    “It seems that with this plan, millions of American students will be left behind,” added Cyndi Rowland, technology director for NCDAE. “There is no mention of universal design or assistive technology. It is tragic that so much energy and effort was placed on developing a plan that does not appear to include everybody.”

    According to 2000 U.S. Census data, roughly 49.7 million individuals over the age of five, or approximately 8.5 percent of the population, has at least one disability that would affect computer and internet use, such as vision, hearing, mobility, or manual dexterity problems, NCDAE said.

    “Students in our day and age are ‘weaned on technology,'” wrote NCDAE Director Sarah Rule. “This includes children with disabilities. We must be sure that the unique needs of these students are considered when developing technology infrastructure in education, including the development of curriculum and teacher training.”

    Looking at the plan from a policy perspective, others were less critical.

    “The new National Education Technology Plan provides a framework for the education community to move beyond simple task automation to transformation of the learning environment,” said Bob Moore, chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) and executive director of IT services at Blue Valley Union School District #229 in Kansas. “Just as technology has transformed other industry sectors, education could reap similar benefits if federal, state and local authorities exercise strong leadership and vision–and provide the necessary resources–to implement the plan’s top priorities.”

    “CoSN is especially pleased that the new National Education Technology Plan mirrors our own technology policy priorities: leadership, smart budgeting, professional development, and the use of data in powerful ways to improve learning,” added CoSN CEO Keith Krueger–though he said the federal government has yet to provide the financial backing necessary to realize these goals. “We urge the administration to demonstrate its commitment to the National Education Technology Plan’s vision by supporting, through its FY06 budget proposal, adequate resources for states and school districts to implement it.”

    Despite lawmakers’ overwhelming vocal support for an increased technological presence in the nation’s schools, several ed-tech lobbyists and other education activists, including CoSN, have criticized the Bush administration and members of Congress for hawking a well-intentioned philosophy that appears somewhat out of touch with the nation’s fiscal reality.

    The grumblings grew louder in November, when Congress approved a massive $191 million cut to the Enhancing Education Through Technology block-grant program, slashing the nation’s primary ed-tech funding initiative by nearly 30 percent. The larger-than-expected reduction came less than one year after Congress closed the doors on the Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology (PT3) program, a $62.5 million initiative intended to help new teachers integrate technology into their instruction.

    In response to criticisms about the current fiscal landscape, Patrick said ED has every intention of continuing its push toward improved technology and instructional integration in the nation’s schools. Whether critics realize it or not, she said, the money needed to subsidize the plan is out there. It’s just a matter of knowing where to look.

    Though Patrick sympathizes with educators’ frustrations surrounding the budget, she said there is additional money available for technology through Reading First and Title I programs, as well as through the reallocation of money at the state and local level.

    “We have to look at the way we are spending money on everything–not just technology,” she said. “This is not just about ed-tech. This is about education.

    “The goal,” she pointed out, “is student achievement.”

    The report provides some much-needed federal guidance regarding an overall vision for technology, said Melinda George, executive director of the State Educational Technology Director’s Association. From a state perspective, she said, “there is still a lot that needs to be done” to make the plan a reality in schools. But, she added, ED’s timing couldn’t have been better.

    By unveiling the report at the outset of the 110th Congress, George said, ED has done its part to ensure that educational technology plays a more prominent role in the upcoming budget talks.

    Now that the word is out, she said, the onus is on educators to lobby for support on Capitol Hill.

    Related item:
    Full text of ED’s seven recommendations
    http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=5456

    Links:

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

    National Education Technology Plan
    http://www.ed.gov/technology/plan

    NetDay Inc.
    http://www.netday.org

    Wireless Generation Inc.
    http://www.wirelessgeneration.com/web/

    National Center on Disability and Access to Education
    http://www.ncdae.org/

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

    State Educational Technology Directors Association
    http://www.setda.org/

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    Arizona vocational ed programs boosting state’s test scores

    The Tucson Citizen reports that Arizona is looking to build on its success with high-tech vocational education programs. The state offers career programs designed to address needs of the local job market as well as state academic standards. High school juniors enrolled in the vocational programs did better on certain standardized tests than their counterparts from the state’s general population.

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    Mobile computing’s popularity leads to two new processors

    Information Week reports that both AMD and Intel will be rolling out new processors for laptops and other mobile computing solutions in the first six months of 2005. Intel’s chip is called the Sonoma, while AMD’s is the Turion. The new releases reflect the growing popularity of mobile computers.

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