Congress reports on eRate abuse

After months of hearings and government investigations into the eRate, Congress has issued a new report that says lax oversight and poor communication by federal regulators is to blame for millions of dollars worth of waste, fraud, and abuse linked to the embattled school wiring program. The findings mirror assertions made as part of another high-profile federal investigation released earlier this year.

The $2.25 billion-a-year eRate, which is overseen by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), provides discounted telecommunications services, internet access, and networking equipment to help expand internet availability in schools and libraries, especially in rural and low-income areas.

For the most part, the Congressional report reaffirms what eRate watchers already know: that the program, while valuable to schools, “is extremely vulnerable to waste, fraud, and abuse, is poorly managed by the FCC, and completely lacks tangible measures of either effectiveness or impact,” according to the report, released Oct. 18 by the oversight subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The conclusions reached by Congress are nearly identical to those asserted by the General Accountability Office (GAO) in a separate report issued in March. As part of that report, the GAO, which is responsible for monitoring how the government spends taxpayer dollars, criticized the FCC for taking a largely hands-off approach to the eRate and said that its lack of oversight makes it nearly impossible to determine “the scope of any waste, fraud, and abuse within the program.”

The GAO report went on to make several recommendations for the FCC to consider as it overhauls the program, including promoting a clearer understanding of federal requirements, outlining a set of performance measures to assess the program’s effectiveness in schools, and taking steps to reduce the massive backlog of funding requests currently clogging the appeals system.

Congress, with the release of findings from its own investigation, provides further momentum for such reforms. But change isn’t likely to happen overnight.

“The FCC has been working on these issues for a long time,” said Peter Kaplan, director of regulatory affairs for Funds for Learning, a national eRate consulting firm. “The agency will continue to streamline and reform these issues as best it can.”

If the FCC doesn’t show progress soon, he said, Congress could force the agency’s hand.

“It’s really unclear what’s going to happen with the program over the next year,” Kaplan said. “Will Congress act by passing legislation to reform the program, or will the threat of legislation force the FCC to act? … At this point, no one knows.”

Either way, one thing is clear: the eRate isn’t going anywhere.

Despite the criticisms, “no one is talking about killing or abolishing the eRate,” explained Kaplan. Instead, he said, the focus is on “much-needed reform.”

From the tone of at least some in Congress, reforms could happen as a result of new legislation.

“It is clear to me,” said subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield, Republican representative from Kentucky, “that many eRate program weaknesses must be addressed legislatively to avoid waste and misuse.”

Ranking Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan said, “We simply cannot allow self-interested vultures and incompetent administrators to undermine this essential program.”

The FCC crafted an ambitious and well-intentioned program, but it failed to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the eRate program, the Congressional report found. It also faulted the agency for having no performance goals and measures to gauge the impact and management of the funds.

The FCC, meanwhile, is working on developing performance standards.

“Chairman Martin was aware of concerns with the program, and one of his first initiatives was to open a proceeding considering fundamental, structural reform to try to address those issues,” said FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield. Republican Kevin Martin was elevated from commissioner to FCC chairman in March.

The subcommittee’s two-year investigation cited problems with the eRate program in Puerto Rico, San Francisco, Chicago, and Atlanta.

For example, the report said more than $100 million was provided to Puerto Rico for an eRate-funded network that was implemented in only a few schools, and almost no students had access to it. In Chicago, more than $8 million in unused connection equipment sat in distribution warehouses.

But not all the findings focused on program abuses. Congressional investigators also shed light of some eRate successes, including a massive, five-year technology upgrade in the School District of Philadelphia financed, in large part, with eRate funds.

“Instead of falling for vendor temptation to ‘gold-plate’ problem schools,” the report said, “Philadelphia chose a slower and economically reasonable path to maximize the efficient use of technology. The school district applied for eRate program funds only as the technology plan dictated, and it never requested more than could be effectively integrated in any given year.”

Despite the vast amount of cynicism surrounding the program, it’s success stories like Philadelphia’s that illustrate how valuable the eRate is to schools, says Kaplan.

To help more schools and districts achieve that success, the report makes a number of recommendations, including the development of performance goals and more rigorous oversight and audits by the FCC and the Universal Service Administrative Co., which handles day-to-day management of the eRate.

The eRate is financed through charges paid by telephone companies and typically passed along to consumers in the form of a universal service fee on consumers’ phone bills.

The FCC plans to use about $132 million from the program to fund a relief plan for Hurricane Katrina-devastated schools and libraries on the Gulf Coast to reconnect to the internet (see http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-05-178A1.pdf). Some lawmakers have expressed concern the plan could siphon eRate money from other states.

Related story:

FCC issues eRate guidance for hurricane-affected schools
http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStoryts.cfm?ArticleID=5920

Links:

House Energy and Commerce Committee
http://energycommerce.house.gov

Federal Communications Commission
http://www.fcc.gov

FCC’s eRate web site
http://www.fcc.gov/learnnet

Universal Service Administrative Co.
http://www.universalservice.org

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

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Sloppy records topple Atlanta eRate audit

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that poor record-keeping by Atlanta Public Schools from 1998 to 2002 has made it impossible for an outside company to conduct a proper audit of the district’s eRate spending. The district spent $188,500 to conduct the audit, but due to missing paperwork, the auditors could not determine if the district had ever violated its eRate spending policies. (Note: This site requires registration.)

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Va. elementary school embracing iPods

The Washington Post reports that Jamestown Elementary School in Arlington, Va., is giving iPods to its students so they can make their own podcasts. Students are using the iPods to produce online radio shows about what they are learning in school. Teachers at the school find the iPods really engage the students, and their decision to embrace them was part of a growing trend of using emerging technologies to connect youngsters with the widest possible audience for their work.
(Note: This site requires registration.)

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Pa. teacher gives up paper for handhelds

Gateway Newspapers of suburban Pittsburgh reports that a group of third-graders at South Fayette Elementary School in South Fayette Township, Pa., are using palm Zire 72 handheld computers for all note-taking and writing exercises. The classroom received 30 devices through a Hands On Learning Grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Teacher Scott Sundgren pushed for the handhelds because he said that not using technology in his classroom would be “unfair” to his students. “You can’t be resistive to it, you just have to embrace it and understand how to apply it to your classroom,” Sundgren said.

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Feds tighten tutoring rules under NCLB

Decisions in Florida by the U.S. Department of Education, if implemented nationwide, would bar groups affiliated with school systems rated “in need of improvement” from participating in the tutoring program mandated under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Entities likely to be barred from the program–worth an estimated $2 billion a year in federal funding–include teacher unions, child-care centers, after-school programs, voc-ed or computer centers, and parents’ groups.

The move represents a potential boon for private, third-party providers in the region. It also holds national implications for districts that are considering offering such tutoring–or supplemental education services (SES)–themselves, because (a) it reaffirms ED’s general position that no district in need of improvement is allowed to serve as its own SES provider; and (b) it further clarifies that the prohibition also applies to groups and programs affiliated with such school systems.

Prospects for the nationwide ban emerged with the release of an ED communiqué affecting at least three Florida school systems. All were rated “in need of improvement” under NCLB. None of the schools systems, nor any affiliated group, could be SES providers for struggling students and instead must find private, third-party tutors for these pupils, according to ED.

The Florida districts in question–including Hillsborough, Suwannee, and Brevard counties–are all considered “in need of improvement” under NCLB rules and therefore cannot serve as providers of supplemental educational services (SES) to underperforming students. According to an Oct. 13 report in the St. Petersburg Times, these districts instead were planning to tutor students indirectly, through district-affiliated organizations such as community education labs, vocational technology centers, and after-school child care programs. In New York, teacher unions also have stepped up to be SES providers.

In Florida, the state education department initially approved the plans of the school systems in question, recognizing the affiliated school organizations as valid SES providers. But amid complaints from private tutoring firms and direction from federal officials, Florida’s education department reversed its position.

In an Oct. 12 letter to superintendents, state officials asked them to halt free tutoring services and provide the parents of children currently enrolled in such programs with viable alternatives. “Any organization affiliated with a school district that is ‘in need of improvement’ may not serve as a provider,” the letter said. “To the extent your district … [has] mistakenly enrolled students, please provide us information about how you will make sure parents have information about and an opportunity to enroll their students in other eligible providers.”

Under NCLB, schools that fail for three consecutive years to meet their state’s standards for adequate yearly progress, or AYP–a set of benchmarks for annual improvement established individually by each state–must offer parents of low-income (Title I) students their choice of tutoring from among a state-approved list of SES providers. Districts can use between 5 percent and 15 percent of their Title I funds to pay for this tutoring, but they must spend at least 5 percent of their Title I funding on SES if parents of eligible students request such services.

The SES rules have spawned a whole new industry in education–one that analysts estimate could exceed $2 billion a year within the next few years. Since the law’s inception in 2001, more than 1,800 SES providers have lined up across the country to begin taking advantage of these revenues.

In Florida alone, more than 350,000 students are eligible for such services, according to the St. Petersburg Times.

The Florida ruling comes as a handful of other districts across the country have asked for, and received, flexibility in how they meet NCLB’s tutoring provisions.

Earlier this year, ED showed a willingness to bend the rules when it granted an exception allowing four Virginia school districts to offer free tutoring services to students before offering them voluntary transfers to better-performing schools, as required by law.

And in August, federal officials granted a similar waiver to the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). The decision marked a change in stance for Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who previously had advocated for by-the-letter enforcement of the law’s provisions. The waiver paved the way for the nation’s third-largest school district to serve as its own tutoring provider, despite its failure to meet AYP for at least three consecutive years.

The waiver was granted only after several Illinois school officials, including CPS Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan, complained that the district’s tutoring program was sound and a preferable option for many students and parents. By offering students mandatory tutoring on its own, Duncan estimated the school system could save money and reach more students in need of extra help.

If forced to go solely with private providers, Duncan said, his district would have enough money to purchase tutoring for just 24,000 students–a far cry from the nearly 80,000 who signed up to receive help.

The controversy began after ED reportedly sent letters to Chicago and three other Illinois school districts demanding that any district deemed “in need of improvement” cease offering tutoring services to students.

The move outraged Duncan, who argued that CPS could provide more affordable opportunities and reach more students than many of the approved private tutoring outfits doing business in the region.

“The federal government has ensured that the cost of providing these tutoring services will skyrocket,” warned Duncan earlier this year.

While CPS spends an average of $400 per child to tutor students itself, officials said, the cost jumps to nearly $1,500 per child whenever a private provider takes over.

“If this is what the law calls for, then the law should be changed,” said Duncan, who requested that federal officials be more lenient in their enforcement of NCLB–especially in a district like Chicago, where more than 74 percent of students reportedly showed improvements in test scores last year.

ED eventually acquiesced to Chicago’s request and granted the district a waiver–the first of its kind under the law.

Spellings and other federal officials billed the waiver as evidence that ED is willing to provide some flexibility in how it interprets the law, as long as school systems can provide federal officials with evidence that they are serious about improving student achievement.

“Achievement is the bottom line,” said Chad Colby, ED’s deputy press secretary, in an interview with eSchool News. “We’ve made it very clear … if you’re in need of improvement, you cannot be a provider.”

But, he said, ED is willing to grant certain exceptions–such as the one in Chicago–on a case-by-case basis.

Colby said ED granted the waiver to CPS as part of a year-long pilot, and officials plan to use the experience to decide whether to offer similar exceptions in the future. As part of the agreement, he said, CPS has to provide periodic progress reports to federal officials and must continue to show marked improvements, or it runs the risk of violating the agreement.

According to Colby, ED already is “talking to some other cities” about the possibility of creating similar agreements, though he wouldn’t say which ones.

So far, Colby said, Florida has not asked the department for a waiver. “If they came to us, we would listen to what they had to say,” he said.

At press time, Florida officials could not say whether the state planned to ask for such a waiver.

Links:

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

Florida Department of Education
http://www.fldoe.org

Chicago Public Schools
http://www.cps.k12.il.us

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Feds look out for fledgling teachers with new online survival guide

“If you are new to the teaching field–or if you work alongside someone who is–then this book was written for you,” begins the introduction to the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED’s) new online tome for beginning educators. Available free of charge on ED’s web site, “Become a Teacher: Survival Guide for New Teachers” features a number of resources for rookie educators, including reflections from fellow first-year teachers recruited to “talk candidly” about their experiences, “with a particular emphasis on the relationships they formed with their colleagues, university professors, and their students’ parents.” Readers will confront a whole host of issues currently affecting the modern classroom–from cultivating effective professional relationships to reaching difficult students. While the resource won’t teach young educators how to run their classrooms, it should help as they try to make the difficult transition from teacher to student. Says ED: “This book is one attempt to make the exchange of knowledge and support for new teachers an institutional practice–for the benefit of students and the communities they represent.”

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Mass. district sets goal of a larger IT staff

The Republican of Springfield, Mass., reports that the school district in nearby Agawam was advised by its technology committee to expand IT staff to keep its technology capabilities at the necessary level. Agawam Public Schools has set a number of benchmarks it has yet to meet, including internet connectivity in all classrooms by 2008. The district was advised to hire an IT administrator as well as IT staff members. “I really believe we’re going to be a model for the state,” said superintendent Mary A. Czajkowski.

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Tech makes parent-teacher contact less scary

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports on the role that technology is playing in facilitating traditional parent-teacher conferences. Thanks to eMail and the internet, many parents have already been in touch with their kids’ teachers long before their first face-to-face meeting. This enables parents to feel more comfortable going into such meetings. “It takes a lot of anxiety out, because you’re not going to get hit with surprises,” says the parent of two elementary school students.

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Kentucky offers refurbished PCs to students

Some low-income eighth-graders throughout Kentucky soon will get used personal computers through a program that teams the Kentucky state government with Microsoft and Lexmark.

The state soon will begin delivering 500 of its refurbished computers to students to use at home as part of a program called “No Child Left Offline.” It’s part of a state effort to promote computer and broadband internet use, said Mike Inman, Kentucky’s commissioner of technology.

The program will work with its first batch of 500 PCs through next year. Eventually, the goal is “to do 2,000 computers a year,” said Brian Mefford, president and chief executive of ConnectKentucky, a nonprofit organization that works to promote technology-based economic development. ConnectKentucky is coordinating the state program.

Kentucky ranks 45th out of 50 states in household computer use, and about a third of low-income eighth-grade students in Kentucky do not have computers at home, Mefford said.

The donated PCs can’t meet the specifications demanded by state government, Inman said, but they’re still relatively fast machines for home use.

Computers usually are hauled to a landfill or “are packed onto pallets and sold for parts for pennies on the dollar,” Mefford said. “We’re reusing them for a great purpose.”

Microsoft is providing 2,000 copies of its Windows XP operating system and Office Suite 2003 software, together valued at $1.5 million.

Lexington, Ky.-based Lexmark is donating 800 color printers, each with two replacement ink cartridges and connecting cables. The printers and supplies are worth $110 each, a total value of $88,000.

More state computers will be channeled through the program as they become available, Inman said. The state replaces its computers every four or five years.

Links:

ConnectKentucky
http://www.connectkentucky.org

Microsoft Corp.
http://www.microsoft.com

Lexmark International Inc.
http://www.lexmark.com

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Palm Beach buses get big security upgrade

The Palm Beach Post reports on the use of Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking devices on Palm Beach County School District buses. The district is taking other steps to boost overall security on the buses, including ID cards that students swipe over a scanner when they enter or exit. Although some drivers are skeptical about the program, district officials insist its goal is student safety and not about micromanaging individual drivers.

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