The federal E-rate program provides support to help schools’ students get connected to the Internet. From its outset in 1997, the E-rate program has recognized this very basic fact: not every school has the same need. In almost every school in America there are students who live in poverty (or very close to it). Some schools have more of these students than others. To address this disparity, the E-rate program was established with a sliding scale of discounts. Every school would receive support, but the highest levels of support would go to the schools with the most impoverished students. Makes sense, right? This was a good start in 1997.
But along the way, something changed. Year after year, schools requested more money than there was available. Because the E-rate program is capped at about $2.25 billion per year, a system had to be adopted to whittle down demand to meet the funding cap. The FCC modified the original discount system by adding a “priority” designation to goods and services. Telecommunications and Internet services would be prioritized over internal connections (i.e. on-campus network infrastructure).
This subtle change shifted the E-rate from a student-centered program to a service-centric program. Let me illustrate by comparing two funding requests.
A school in a wealthy neighborhood. 5% of students qualify for free and reduced price lunch. It is requesting $100 for Broadband Internet access.
A school in an economically challenged neighborhood. 95% of students quality for free and reduced price lunch. It is requesting $100 for Wi-Fi access points.
Assume you have $100 of support to offer these schools. If you could only support one of them, which would you choose? Stop and think about this for a moment. Would you help School A with its handful of students from impoverished homes? Or would you help School B, filled almost entirely of students from impoverished homes? Which would you choose?
Under the current E-rate rules, School A is the winner. School B’s request, because it is for computer networking equipment, is considered a lower priority than School A’s Internet service, and is therefore denied. How can this be? Wasn’t the E-rate designed to help students in all schools? Yes, it was. But that is not how it functions today.
Let’s go back to our funding scenario. Assume, again, that you have $100 with which to help these schools. Rather than forcing you to pick one or the other, wouldn’t it be better if you could offer some support to both schools? After all, there are poverty-level students in both. Perhaps we could give a little support to School A — $10 — and provide the remaining $90 to School B. Both schools would get support for the services they are requesting, but the biggest portion would go to the school with the highest number of poverty-level students.
The service-centric funding priority system is broken. There are students in both School A and School B who qualify for free and reduced price lunch. I do not think it is right to pay the Internet access bill for one school, while denying students Wi-Fi connections in another school. Both schools should receive support.
I believe that the E-rate program should provide a sliding scale of support to all schools for all services that are necessary to connect students to the Internet. I also believe that the neediest families in America should benefit the most from this support. This is the basis of the Funds For Learning E-rate 2.0 proposal:
Increase annual E-rate funding to $4.5 billion permanently, with an ongoing adjustment for inflation.
Restore the original technology-neutral E-rate framework by removing the “Priority System” funding cap.
Place reasonable limits on the annual amount of E-rate discounts available to any single applicant.
E-rate funding should not be prioritized based on some “service category” designation. There should only be one priority in the E-rate program: connecting students.
Find out more about the Funds For Learning proposal.