Key Strategies to Modernize E-Rate

Principals across the country agree: E-Rate is not meeting schools’ technology needs. But the program is being modernized, and NAESP has launched an effort to ensure principals’ voices are heard in that process.

Begun in 1996, E-Rate is a federal program that provides funds for public and private schools to connect to the Internet at a discounted rate. In July 2013, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which oversees E-Rate, announced its plan to modernize the program. There have been two periods for stakeholders to submit comments about the program. On March 6, 2014, the FCC announced the start of the second round of public comments, focusing specifically on what are called Priority II services. Priority I services are Internet and telephone services; Priority II services (typically given to high-poverty schools) involve basic internal connections, wirings, and switches. 

NAESP’s Survey of Principals

How can the E-Rate program best meet schools’ and districts’ needs? To find out, NAESP surveyed principals across the country on their technology challenges.

Districts, rather than individual schools, typically apply for E-Rate funding, and districts vary in how the funds are allocated. Decisions—some of which are based on school population size—tend to be made by district personnel and leadership teams (school and district leaders).

Over 70 percent of principals surveyed report that their districts are not meeting their basic connectivity needs with current E-Rate funding. Principals indicate that they work with their district IT department to determine technology needs and costs, and their top priorities are:

  • Establishing and maintaining high-speed connectivity;
  • Maintaining and/or replacing technology equipment;
  • Integrating technology in a meaningful way within each classroom;
  • Building network capacity to meet the needs of more online standardized testing requirements; and
  • Establishing wireless Internet throughout the school.

Most principals—85 percent—report that general access to broadband is a vital concern. Overwhelmingly, principals in rural areas agree that general Internet access is a major concern. Many principals acknowledge that they do not bother applying for Priority II resources because the funding is viewed as inadequate.

The recent E-Rate modernization discussions have included the phasing out of support for voice (telephone or VoIP) services, but principals are concerned about that. Many elementary and middle-level principals feel that voice service is critical, especially in emergency situations. Further, many schools cannot afford to bear the cost of these services.

The survey also examined the percentage of schools or districts that participate in bulk purchasing or consortium programs for technology equipment or technical assistance. Currently, about half of the schools and districts surveyed participate in these programs.  Though respondents recognize the benefits of these programs, principals report that, if needed, they would redirect these funds to meet other connectivity needs.

The survey made clear that E-Rate’s current funding cap should be raised in order to support current and future demand for services necessary for a 21st century education.

Recommendations to FCC

Based on responses from principals, NAESP submitted these comments to the FCC, which included the following key points:

  • E-Rate is critical for school success. The program should be modernization by streamlining the application process; maintaining focus on Priority II funding once sufficient needs are met for Priority I areas; and slowing down any effort to make a major, permanent structural overhaul of the program at this time.
  • The FCC should increase the overall cap to $5 billion to meet and to sustain the program’s longstanding support for broadband in schools and libraries.
  • The overall demand on the E-Rate program must negate any efforts to provide pilot or demonstration projects in absence of an additional hike in the cap.
  • Schools and districts need guidance and sufficient access to alternative service coverage to prepare for the phase out of voice services.