Back-to-school season brings with it a flurry of new tasks and challenges, and so educational technologists can be forgiven if the eRate is low on their list of priorities right now. After all, there are still two months left before applications for the 2007-2008 funding year can even be filed.

But hold on. While students and teachers, if not school IT personnel, were enjoying their hard-earned summer break, a lot was going on with the $2.25 billion-a-year eRate, which gives substantial telecommunications discounts to eligible schools and libraries.

For starters, the Federal Communications Commission has continued to release a string of favorable decisions on appeals, which have caused a “fundamental shift” in the way the SLD (Schools and Libraries Division, the group that administers the eRate) does business, according to Acting Vice President Mel Blackwell. The FCC also recently issued a draft of its revised Eligible Services List for the next funding year, and there are a few items on this list that bear watching when the final version is released.

Then, there’s the recent action on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are looking to update the Telecommunications Act of 1996–and the Universal Service Fund plays a significant part in these discussions.

Closely following all of these developments, and their potential impact on eRate applicants, is the eRate consulting firm Funds for Learning (FFL), which has helped prepare nearly 5,900 funding requests that have resulted in more than $300 million in funding.

“One of the huge challenges for school districts is that the eRate changes every year–the guidance changes, the forms change,” said Peter Kaplan, the firm’s director of regulatory affairs. “It’s hard for an eRate coordinator at a school or district to focus on this program year round.”

At eSchool News, we know you don’t have a lot of time to track the eRate’s many changes–so we’ve made it easy for you. We’ve teamed up with the experts from Funds for Learning to launch a new section of our web site devoted to the latest eRate news, information, and analysis.

At our new eRate Resource Center, you can read about breaking eRate developments like the ones I just mentioned, along with an analysis of why they matter to schools–and how they might affect your funding prospects.

Take, for instance, the FCC’s recent decisions on appeals. “The FCC seems to be asking [the SLD] to try to do everything possible to fund eligible applications and invoices, as opposed to denying the stakeholder and then leaving it up to the stakeholder to appeal the decision,” wrote FFL in a recent news brief, available on our eRate Resource Center. The agency’s moves signal a “kinder, gentler eRate than historically we’ve had before,” Kaplan adds.

How might this affect your own chances for funding? Well, for one thing, if you apply for discounts on a series of eligible services, then realize you can’t pay your share of the tab on these services, you can cancel some of your funding requests without jeopardizing your entire application.

The Anson County, N.C., School District was denied nine Form 471 requests in 2005 because the SLD ruled the district “did not budget the funds necessary to pay its portion of the discounted services it was seeking,” FFL explains. “When submitting the funding requests, [district officials] believed they would have necessary resources for all nine requests. During the review process, [they] cancelled four of the requests in order to have the funds necessary to pay their portion of the non-discounted budget”–and the SLD subsequently denied the district’s entire application.

In its appeals decision, however, “the FCC stated that when events arise that render an applicant unable to pay for its requests, the ‘SLD should provide the applicant with the opportunity to select a subset of its funding requests that its current funds can cover,'” FFL writes.

Regarding the draft of the new Eligible Services List, “we believe that the glossary entry for ‘firewall’ needs further revision and/or clarification,” said FFL in comments filed with the FCC. “We also believe that a clearer distinction should be made between paging, eMail, and text-messaging services.”

Right now, the consulting firm warns, paging and eMail services are eligible for eRate support–but text messaging is not. “It is Funds for Learning’s recommendation that the Eligible Services List be modified to clearly articulate the underlying rule that distinguishes between [these services],” FFL wrote to the FCC. “If no such rule exists, we recommend that these three services receive consistent treatment on the eligibility list.” Will the FCC follow the firm’s advice? That remains to be seen–but you can visit our eRate Resource Center for the latest updates on this and other eRate developments.