E-rate Deserves Expertise
Schools and libraries are entitled to professional support and expertise. This support can include legal support, accounting support, technical support, professional development and yes even E-rate consultation. Schools today are faced with the challenge of improving our education system for all children in our nation with inadequate budgets and increased testing requirements. Their focus is and should remain educating students. Schools are faced with the challenge of seeking every available financial resource while doing so with fewer resources. This creates great challenges for schools especially when complying with the many challenges of the E-rate program.
With the recent focus on the ConnectEd Initiative, the need to increase the E-rate program fund, cut waste and improve efficiency within the current structure of the program, some have suggested that consultants should be eliminated from the E-rate program. I find this suggestion unacceptable for schools and libraries. Why would anyone think that schools are not entitled to professional support like any other business or agency? Is it because there are those who do not want schools well informed or to succeed with the E-rate program? Or is it fear that if a school receives assistance from an experienced outside source they may submit applications for larger requests? Is there a desire to reduce appeals due to a school’s lack of knowledge about the process? Or are those opposed to schools using consultants really just expressing their frustration over the complexity of the program?
You can be assured that most Federal agencies and businesses use outside sources for legal representation, accounting service and other general business support needs that they may not have in house. Yet a program such as E-rate with various, complicated compliance and procurement regulations does not need professional attention and focus? The FCC just launched its reform of the E-rate program proposing to refocus the program on connectivity and speed, collect more data and to simplify the process. These reforms include proposed changes to the FCC Form 470 and Form 471 along with the estimated number of hours it will take to complete the forms. When comparing the estimated time to prepare the old forms to the new forms, the new forms do not result in less time spent on a simpler form. The proposed changes do not simplify the process and alleviate the need for help.
Consultants can and do add value to the program. A good consultant helps to maintain the integrity of the program by assisting schools and libraries with compliance and an understanding of the program regulations. Consultants help applicants avoid mistakes, manage deadlines and follow program rules. Consultants explain complicated instructions and focus on deadlines that the average school employee simply cannot dedicate that amount of resources to. Many states have a dedicated E-rate State representative who serves the state as a consultant. These individuals are called State E-rate Coordinators. Some State E-rate Coordinators provide guidance free to schools and libraries within their constituency. In addition to free training and guidance, some State E-rate Coordinators assist with or prepare E-rate applications for schools and libraries for a fee. This is a consultant. This is a person dedicated to understanding the program and providing support for that program based on their expertise.
Schools deserve the same opportunity for professional guidance and support as any other business or agency. Though I support the continued effort to streamline the program, I also support the school’s right to decide if using outside assistance may be a better use of school resources.