Even as schools increasingly depend on the E-rate program, the funds dedicated to connecting schools and libraries to the Internet can’t keep up with demand, and it’s unlikely to grow in the near term.
Yet need for the funding is likely to be compounded by the arrival of the Common Core State Standards, as they require online assessments of students starting in the 2014 school year. This will have a huge impact on schools networking capabilities—if one grade level is online all at once, other classrooms are likely to be affected if schools lack adequate wiring.
Today, 90 percent of schools already say they’re deeply dependent on the discounts afforded to them through the E-rate program and that the current level of funding is inadequate, according to a recent study from Funds for Learning, a firm that helps manage E-rate support for schools.
“The program hadn’t had an increase in funding since 1995,” says Hilary Goldmann, director of government affairs for the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), based in Washington, DC. “Meanwhile, bandwidth needs have increased at schools.”
In addition, fewer than 15 percent of those who responded to the Funds for Learning survey also said “…their Internet access and communications infrastructure is adequate to meet educational needs in the near future,” according to the study authors.
“We’d like to see [the E-rate] cap raised,” says ISTE’s Goldmann.
Currently, the E-rate program is capped at $2.34 billion for the 2012 Funding Year, an inflation-adjusted amount allocated through two different stages: Priority 1, which handles telecommunications and Internet access, and Priority 2, which handles connections inside schools. Priority 1 is funded first, with leftover funds going to Priority 2. This past year the program had $5 billion in applications, says Goldmann, with almost nothing left for Priority 2.
The American Library Association (ALA) has an E-rate Task Force, which is constantly pushing for increases to the program with the FCC, which manages E-rate. But Marijke Visser, assistant director for the ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy, says that it’s a “big ask, policy wise,” to push for more money, particularly in an election year. The FCC is looking at the Universal Service Fund in general, which includes E-rate, which is funded through a Universal Services fee charged to telecommunications companies, she says.
“The FCC does not want to increase the Universal Service fee to providers,” says Visser. “They’re revamping a lot of different buckets, and looking at the whole piece. It’s a question of where the money is going to come from.”
Visser adds that everyone involved knows changes have to come, given that demand already constantly pushes against the cap, and schools knowing they’ll be stressed further as Common Core assessments arrive.
“We make the point that it isn’t enough, and they know that,” says Visser. “But we anticipate some hard choices in the next procurement cycle.”