Federal Dateline

Plan Now for E-Rate Discounts This Winter

by Kari Arfstrom

Fact: Your school district’s bill for telephone service and long distance last year was $42,404. The yearly cost of your cable is $280. You pay $5,000 a year for Internet service. You are thinking about installing a T-1 line in the high school for an annual cost of $1,567 per line plus a one-time installation charge of $754. You’ve committed $50,005 in your annual budget for these expenses.

Fact: Your district’s free and reduced lunch count last year was 58 percent and your district was designated rural by the Office of Management and Budget’s Statistical Metropolitan Areas.

Don’t let this be a fact: You spend $33,923.78 more than you need to for the telephone bill alone because you fail to take advantage of the new federal E-rate discount available this winter.

Yes, you read that right. If you apply for the discounts afforded schools and libraries in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, your district in this scenario would pay $10,001, saving $40,004!

Legislative Alert

The Universal Service Fund, which is funded by telephone service providers, was been around since the 1930s, but the fund now will be expanded to allow for $2.25 billion annually to help the neediest school districts pay for such things as Internet service, distance learning, cable, telephone and long distance—most any technology that connects the outside world to your students.

A page-and-a-half amendment was added in the waning moments of the Telecommunications Act two years ago by four rural Senators asking the Federal Communications Commission to allow for deep discounts for schools and libraries to assist in paying their technology connectivity bills.

Therein lies the potential problem. This exceptional piece of legislation means more vendors draw monies out of the fund than put into it, thus setting up a litigious situation. A lawsuit has been filed and a request for a stay is expected. But the scuttle among Washington insiders is that the program will go forward with any lawsuit taking place concurrently behind the scenes.

Discount Criteria

AASA has played a key role in advocating for the legislation and the regulations that govern the implementation of the E-rate, as it is commonly called. The forms your district office will fill out will be less burdensome that any other federal program’s forms. School districts are encouraged to join with other eligible applicants (libraries, rural health care providers and others) to form a consortium for greater purchasing power. The more customers, the lower price to start, even before the discounts.

Individual states need to act on this legislation before the funds from the Universal Service Fund will be distributed to applicants in that state. Most states have taken action on this federal legislation to co-exist with their own states’ laws. Some have even offered other discounts for greater savings.

To get ready for these tremendous savings, check to see if your school district’s technology plan addresses the following criteria: describes how your district will integrate technology into the curriculum; lists which services you currently use and those you’d like to add; describes how you will effectively use hardware, software and how you will provide for staff development; and contains an evaluation process. Make sure your school board has given this document its stamp of approval within the past five years.

You also must know the number of students eligible for free and reduced lunch counts in individual schools, when current contracts with technology providers expire and which schools will need an extra boost to ensure an equitable playing field for all your students. Forms will be widely disseminated this fall with funds flowing on Jan. 1, 1998.

While $2.25 billion seems like a huge pot of money, distributions are on a first-come, first-served basis. You would be wise, at the minimum, to fill out the application for existing district contracts. Then concentrate on new contracts for services the second year. During the first go-round of distributions, the discounts are good only for 6 months with the yearly cycle starting July 1 of each year thereafter. Schools will need to apply annually since funds could go dry, with neediest schools getting priority.

This phenomenal legislation provides a ramp for students and others in our communities to experience technology because of its minimal costs to schools and libraries. A little planning now will ensure a discount on your bills starting this winter.

Kari Arfstrom is a legislative specialist at AASA. E-mail: karfstrom@aasa.org. AASA’s new E-rate workbook is available from AASA Publications (Toll-free: 888-782-2272; 301-617-7802).