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Modernizing the E-Rate Program

 

by Dan Domenech, executive director
AASA, The School Superintendents Association

Last month the FCC closed its comment period for its most recent Public Notice, soliciting responses for the FCC’s proposed changes to the E-Rate program. The current E-Rate policy environment is an unprecedented confluence of events: An FCC Chairman committed to modernizing the E-Rate program, an FCC Commissioner deeply passionate about E-Rate, the momentum of the President’s ConnectEd proposal, the announcement of $2 billion in found funding for the E-Rate program, and the ever-increasing demand for connectivity in the nation’s schools and libraries.

The long-term success of E-Rate relies on its ability to be updated to reflect the ever-changing world of connectivity and educational technology while remaining committed to its focus on equity and program sustainability. Though most schools and libraries are now connected to the Internet, the quality and speed of that connection does not always meet the demand.  We still have school districts that do not have the technological capacity to keep up with the mandated online formative assessments and the tracking of massive amounts of data through the state longitudinal data systems.

From an AASA point of view, we strongly support a two-prong approach to modernizing the E-Rate program. One with both programmatic changes and a permanent increase in the program’s funding cap. An infusion of funding without programmatic restructuring is a poor investment, and programmatic restructuring without permanent, adequate funding sets the program on a path toward instability and failure.

Earlier this year, the administration announced an infusion of $2 billion over two years for the E-Rate program. This is not new funding, rather it is found funding, coming in part from roll-over funds not allocated to Priority Two (internal connections and their basic maintenance) services and other tweaks to program accounting. AASA applauds the effort to find the funds, but we want this funding to be seen as what it is: a one-time infusion of E-Rate funding back into the E-Rate program. In its Public Notice, the FCC is looking to allocate these dollars to Priority Two services, the portion of the program that provides for internal connections and is regularly underfunded, as funding runs out before demand can be met.

In a time when it is all but certain that the demand for connectivity in the learning environment will keep growing, it is counterintuitive to provide a much-needed infusion of funds as a one-time investment. Districts, like individuals, will spend one-time funding (like a bonus) differently than a permanent increase (salary increase). Any serious discussion about modernizing E-Rate will be committed to sustainability, and any final proposal short of a permanent funding increase sets the program on an unsustainable path.