Consensus: e-Rate a success–but still needed

In recognition of the 10th anniversary of the e-Rate, two education groups released a report on Feb. 28 stating that the program has transformed U.S. schools and libraries into institutions of modern learning–but that its mission is not yet complete.

“e-Rate: 10 Years of Connecting Kids and Community” indicates that e-Rate-supported connectivity now allows 100 percent of public libraries to provide free internet access to communities, and it credits the e-Rate with increasing the number of public-school classrooms with internet access from 14 percent in 1996 to 95 percent in 2005.

Created in 1997, the e-Rate is a federally funded program that provides up to $2.25 billion per year in discounts on telecommunications services, internet access, and internal networking to U.S. public and private schools and public libraries. To date, nearly $19 billion in discounts have been provided to schools and libraries (in some years, not all of the e-Rate money was spent).

The Education and Libraries Networks Coalition and the National Coalition for Technology in Education and Training teamed up to produce the report.

The report says that after 10 years of e-Rate support, more than 90 percent of classrooms in rural, high-minority, and low-income school districts now have internet connections, allowing them to leverage modern communications tools to support student achievement. An additional 2,800 private schools also have received support from the e-Rate.

Although such progress is significant, the report notes the program’s work is hardly complete. Schools and libraries not only must sustain their current access levels, but they also need to expand their bandwidth capacities to ensure that students, teachers, and community members keep pace with the ever-expanding digital resources available online.

A panel discussion, featuring representatives from educational organizations and various members of Congress, accompanied the report’s release and touched on the e-Rate’s future in schools and libraries. Part of the discussion turned to the e-Rate’s rules and regulations, which have been difficult for some applicants to interpret.

The e-Rate “is important to our kids educationally, and it’s important to our country economically,” said panel member Mark Seifert of the House Commerce Committee. But, Seifert said, “I’ve heard people say it’s hard to figure out the rules on Tuesday because they have changed since Monday.” Seifert is Democratic counsel to the Commerce Committee.

“[We are] interested in a better flow of information between stakeholders and USAC,” he said, referring to the Universal Service Administrative Co., the third-party contractor that administers the program for the Federal Communications Commission.

“I assure you, without e-Rate there will be no closing of the achievement gap,” said panel member John Wilson, executive director of the National Education Association. “e-Rate has changed the public schools. You don’t have a great public school without having the right tools and resources–[and] e-Rate is that resource to help sustain kids in 21st-century learning.”

The report highlighted 10 school districts and the progress they each have made as a result of receiving e-Rate funds. Ho’okena Elementary School in Hawaii used e-Rate funds to give every classroom a working telephone, cable television access, and internet connectivity. Nevada’s Clark County School District established a virtual high school to support its rapidly growing population. Archdiocese of Boston Catholic Schools used e-Rate funds to allow up to 6,000 students to engage in distance learning on a daily basis.

Yet, the rise in online video and other bandwidth-intensive applications points to the continued need for such a program; just because schools are now “wired” doesn’t mean the e-Rate no longer is necessary, the report says–a point that many others echoed.

“The e-Rate is quite simply the most important national funding source for educational technology,” said Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN). “Without it, meaningful educational technology initiatives, ranging from online professional development and assessment to video streaming, would not be possible. CoSN believes the eRate has been a tremendous success over the past 10 years, and it clearly meets a continuing and future need.”

“As the report demonstrates, e-Rate has played a pivotal role in revolutionizing how students learn, educators teach, and communities engage with the global economy,” said Don Knezek, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). “ISTE recognizes e-Rate’s decade of success but submits that the e-Rate has much work still to do in maintaining existing services and paving the way for our schools and libraries to adopt new and even more exciting online educational applications and services.”

Olympia Snowe, Republican senator from Maine and one of the key architects of the e-Rate in Congress, stated: “Information is the key to education and to keeping America competitive in an increasingly global economy. While the first 10 years of the e-Rate have helped schools and libraries upgrade and build their technology infrastructure, maintaining and upgrading these public institutions will require a continued effort and continued support of the program. Today’s report outlines how essential the e-Rate is to our country’s future.”

Another new report, this one from the Benton Foundation, reaches the same conclusion.

“Universal service programs need increased funding, better coordination, policy changes, and service improvements if every American is to have the opportunity to participate in the 21st-century information society,” it says.

Among the Benton report’s recommendations: (1) Continue the e-Rate as a permanent component of universal service; (2) limit funding to connectivity and related infrastructure; (3) maintain discounts based on poverty and rurality; (4) require a triennial review of application and oversight procedures to improve efficiency, effectiveness, and transparency of funding; and (5) require that a small percentage of funds be used for outreach to make more educators and librarians aware of the program and how to participate.

Meanwhile, a survey of K-12 educators conducted by Certiport, a company that certifies digital skills, revealed a disparity between internet use and training in U.S. schools. About 95 percent of survey respondents said they use the internet as a learning tool in curricula such as language arts, social studies, and science. In contrast, only 39 percent reportedly receive targeted training to leverage the internet in the classroom. “Over its 10-year history, the e-Rate program has been extremely successful in providing schools with access to the internet,” said David Saedi, president and CEO of Certiport. “Access is a significant, but not a complete, solution to bridging the digital divide in our schools. Teachers and students must now learn and validate their digital skills to ensure they can achieve optimum learning outcomes and succeed in the 21st century.” Links:

Education and Libraries Networks Coalition

National Coalition for Technology in Education and Training

Universal Service Administrative Co.

Federal Communications Commission

National Education Association

Consortium for School Networking

International Society for Technology in Education

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine

Benton Foundation

“What Have We Learned From the e-Rate?: An Assessment of e-Rate Performance”

Certiport Inc.

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