Advocacy Update: NAESP Stands Firm on E-Rate Program Proposal

By Kelly D. Pollitt Communicator June 2014, Volume 37, Issue 10

By Kelly D. Pollitt
June 2014, Volume 37, Issue 10

NAESP joined other school groups to issue a letter to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler that pushes for modernizing the federal E-Rate program. Earlier this year, NAESP submitted comments to the FCC concerning potential changes to E-Rate, advocating on behalf of the nation’s elementary and middle-level principals for impactful changes, including streamlining the E-Rate application process, maintaining focus on Priority II only when sufficient needs are met in Priority I areas, and slowing down any effort to make a major, permanent structural overhaul of the program until schools and districts demonstrate a more equitable distribution of technology capacity across the nation. The FCC must ensure the process to update E-Rate sufficiently meets all needs of schools and libraries, particularly as schools transition to digital learning and online assessments. To accomplish this, NAESP has urged the FCC to increase the overall cap on the program from $2.4 billion to $5 billion to meet demand and sustain the program’s longstanding support for broadband in schools and libraries.

Created in 1996 under telecommunications policy, the $2 billion federal E-Rate program provides funds in order of priority to schools and libraries for telecommunications services and Internet access (“Priority I” services). Once these needs are met, the program allows schools and libraries to apply for funds to meet needs related to internal connections and maintenance costs to make use of telecommunications and Internet services and equipment, such as routers, switches, Wi-Fi and Voice over IP (VoIP) equipment (“Priority II” services).

The Chairman’s proposal will likely redirect E-Rate program funds away from basic technology services under Priority I areas, rename Priority I and Priority II as “categories,” and phase out coverage of costs like VoIP and email in favor of funding school and library internal connections. The proposal includes use of an initial $2 billion in existing program funds—or no new program funds, allocated at $1 billion for each of the next two years. If demand exceeds the amount available in any given year, money would flow to schools and districts through a formula based on poverty and allocated to schools serving students with the greatest needs first. However, before this funding mechanism is enacted, general E-Rate funds will be allocated on per pupil basis, or $150 per student for Category 2 needs. Districts and schools would be eligible for a single formula distribution once over the course of five years, and possibly double costs for poorer districts and schools.

The nation’s elementary and middle-level principals believe it is critical for the E-Rate program to continue to meet telecommunications and general Internet needs, especially in emergency situations. Many schools simply are not ready to move to address their internal connectivity needs without sufficient access to general connectivity. Schools will not be able to afford Priority I services once they are eliminated.

NAESP hopes that the FCC will fully consider the issues put forward by the education groups and prompt additional, meaningful discussion on how to best reform the E-Rate program in light of the significant and varied technology needs facing schools and districts across the nation.

Officials are expected to debate the Chairman’s proposal during a July 11 Commission meeting. In the meantime, NAESP will continue to hold firm on its positions and ensure that schools have access to resources needed to provide students with a digitally-rich learning environment.

Kelly D. Pollitt is Associate Executive Director for Policy, Public Affairs, and Special Projects at NAESP.

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