The Education Library Networks Coalition (EdLiNC)—a group of education associations that includes the American Library Association (ALA) and the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE)—is calling on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to double the funding for E-rate, EdLiNC’s co-chair Jon Bernstein tells School Library Journal. The coalition also asks that the E-rate program, which provides discounted Internet and telecommunications services to U.S. schools and libraries, offer more “scalable” goals for local entities, with limited national mandates.
EdLiNC’s requests were submitted last week within a 36-page statement, which forms the coalition’s official response to the FCC’s notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to overhaul the E-rate program.
Though a member of EdLiNC, ALA filed a separate statement with the FCC last week calling for faster deployment of high-capacity broadband, strategic investments in infrastructure, and program changes to save costs and streamline the process so more schools and libraries can participate.
ISTE has yet to file its own separate statement—but still might—although the group “was intimately involved in drafting EdLiNC’s comments, which reflect where ISTE’s at,” Bernstein notes.
In its own statement representing all its member groups, EdLiNC stresses how successful E-rate’s structure and priorities have been since the program’s inception, but also makes the case for increased funding and minor program tweaks so that it runs more smoothly in the future.
“The program has been extremely successful, and a massive overhaul is not needed,” Bernstein says. “What is really needs is more money.”
“Our problem is that [E-rate’s current annual budget of between $2 and $3 billion] has not increased appreciably since 1998, and when that cap was set, it did not contemplate the growth in mobile wireless devices or the existence of iPhones and tablets and things that would be critical learning tools right now,” Bernstein says. “So we think that there’s tremendous pent-up demand. Those things are moving into schools, which means that you need better broadband, and you need better deployment of bandwidth throughout the schools. There’s a lot of different pieces to this.”
When the E-rate program was created, its purpose was to get any sort of basic connection in classrooms and libraries, even dial-up, Bernstein notes. “Now, you actually need broadband [and] sufficient bandwidth to make use of the great digital tools and services that are available online.”
EdLiNC, therefore, recommends the annual cap be reset to $5 billion, “because that reflects where the demonstrable demand has been over the past two years,” Bernstein says. “And when we say current demand, that’s application demand. Actual demand, based on our estimates, is probably somewhere around $8 billion a year. It’s just that a lot of people now don’t bother to file.”
This proposed overhaul to the program is the most important rulemaking in E-rate’s history, Bernstein adds. “And it’s important to get it right. It’s important to get the budget right for it, and it’s important that we make some changes to it that modernize it and are elastic enough so that it will weather as well in the next 15 years as well as it did in the first 15 years.”
And while EdLiNC supports national goals for the program, its statement to the FCC also emphasizes the need for more customizable benchmarks. “We think that there should be targets that are scalable based on the entity, so a rural school with x number of students and costs of bandwidth of x dollars will have different goals,” Bernstein explains. “We don’t want anything that’s a mandate, anything that’s punitive. We want to talk about setting goals that are based on what an entities needs’ are.”
One of the best parts of E-rate, Bernstein notes, is that it is locally driven. “So it’s up to schools and libraries to figure out what’s best of them, what makes the most sense. And that may be a new technology not even on the horizon or a technology that currently exists that works perfectly well for them,” he says. “We advocate that it should remain a local decision. We certainly believe that there are cost efficiencies that can be done with consortia, and we support districts and libraries banding together—there should be ways to encourage that—but we don’t think it should be mandated.”
As for streamlining the process, EdLiNC calls for the creation of a multi-year application, much as the ALA recommends. The coalition also lists numerous tweaks it hopes will be made to the online application, calls for the creation of a new online portal for applicants to eliminate extra paperwork and allow prospective participants to view the status of their applications, and affirms that the program’s structure and focus remain unchanged. “A strength of the program is that it is elastic. It has always been technologically neutral, because there may be other technologies that we’re not even contemplating that could arise in the next 10 years that schools and libraries are going to need to have,” Bernstein says. “So we think that it’s really important that this remains [that way].”
EdLiNC rejects a proposal, submitted by another group, that E-rate’s monetary allocations be changed to a per-pupil formula grant program, rather than the existing application system.
“We are concerned that there are going to be big problems for urban and rural recipients of the funds if this goes to a flat, per-pupil allocation system,” he notes. “Some rural schools will not be able to get enough money to do what they need to do and want to do for bandwidth, and certainly a lot of the money will be taken out of urban schools, so that will also decrease the ability to build what they need to build and have the services that they need.” Since Internet and telecommunications services are sold on a flat-rate basis, creating an allocation system just “doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he insists, and the coalition would be strongly opposed to such a change.
Still, Bernstein says he’s hopeful that the FCC’s commissioners will see the bigger picture, and keep what has been proven successful in the program while improving the parts that need modernizing. The comment period on the NPRM ends on October 16, and, until then, EdLiNC is continuing to urge its members to file individual statements. “We think it’s important that the FCC hear from educators, how they feel about E-Rate, what they feel has worked, and what they really see E-Rate becoming—and what it needs to become—in the next 10 to 15 years,” he says.
Adds Bernstein, “My goal, more than anything else, is to make sure that enough grassroots people from schools and libraries—and even the community at large—let the commission know how important the program is and what it has accomplished, because they can’t be said enough. There just needs to be a sufficient record on all of these issues so they can make a good decision.”