As discussed in my recent commentary, “Truth or Dare,” the FCC has made a significant change to the discount calculation methodology for FY2012. This change raises several concerns:
- The state is not the appropriate party to calculate school site discounts.
- Using a slide deck to distribute program rule changes is not appropriate.
- The FCC Form 471 instructions should be updated to reflect the new program rule.
Participation vs. Eligibility
Are alternative mechanisms still allowable? If so, it appears that applicants using NSLP data may be penalized under this new guidance. E-rate discounts will now be calculated based on NSLP participation rather than eligibility. State NSLP data will count participation only for sites that feed students. NSLP data is not typically reported to the state for instructional sites that do not feed students. Students at these sites are counted at their home schools. What about schools that don’t participate in the NSLP? Will surveys no longer be admissible or must they be administered during a particular month? What third party verification will be required for alternative mechanisms?
I don’t believe that state participation numbers are an accurate measure of eligibility. Over recent funding years, I have observed an evolution by the program administrator from requesting that the data be verified by a school official to requiring that it be verified by a third party. PIA frequently requests claim forms to substantiate data that does not match state or other national statistics currently used by PIA for verification. How will this be handled going forward if a school claim form does not match the number reported by the state? Will a claim form no longer be considered sufficient documentation? If so, it really would just be easier for USAC to tell the school what their discount is based on participation as reported by the state. It seems that self certification is no longer acceptable by the FCC. If the FCC now wants the state to “third party” verify all data then should the states also certify funding requests?
Releasing Guidance on Training Slides
If a participant in the program failed to attend a fall applicant training they may never know that the new guidance is to use data that the state reports. State data and reporting periods will vary by state. This will be confusing to applicants especially if they are reading the FCC Form 471 instructions which ask applicants to use NSLP as of October 1st or “the most current figure available”. Many schools interpret this as the most accurate data available at the time they are completing their application form.
A change as significant as this should be reflected in the Form 471 instructions. The FCC should update the official application instructions and allow USAC better mechanisms for distributing information other than a deck of training slides or a weekly newsletter. The FCC approves USAC PIA procedures and a change this significant should be first vetted with a public comment period, and, if adopted, codified. At this time, it may be time for the FCC to clarify their position on discount rate calculations and provide USAC with a better format for distributing changes in the future.