In recognition of the 10th anniversary of the eRate, 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.

“eRate: 10 Years of Connecting Kids and Community” indicates that eRate-supported connectivity now allows 100 percent of public libraries to provide free internet access to communities, and it credits the eRate 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 eRate 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 eRate money was spent).

The Education and Library 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 eRate 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 eRate.

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; they also must expand their bandwidth capacities to ensure they keep pace with the ever- expanding resources available online.

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

The eRate “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 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 the eRate there will be no closing of the achievement gap,” said panel member John Wilson, executive director of the National Education Association. “The eRate has changed the public schools. You don’t have a great public school without having the right tools and resources–[and the] eRate 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 eRate funds. Ho’okena Elementary School in Hawaii used eRate 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 eRate 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 a continued need for the program; just because schools are now “wired” doesn’t mean the eRate no longer is necessary, the report says–a point many others echoed. Olympia Snowe, Republican senator from Maine and one of the architects of the eRate 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 eRate have helped schools and libraries upgrade and build their technology infrastructure, maintaining and upgrading these public institutions will require a continued effort … Today’s report outlines how essential the eRate is to our country’s future.”