1’s and 0’s
Rating the E-Rate: Making Sure the Investment Pays Off
by Andy Carvin
Senior Associate • The Benton Foundation • Washington, DC
MultiMedia Schools • March/April 2000

The E-Rate is turning many schools into technology centers without a high-tech staff.

Just in case you missed it, February marked the fourth anniversary of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Back then; the new law caused a public hullabaloo because of an amendment called the Communications Decency Act (CDA), a persnickety rule that would have restricted the posting of “indecent” content on the Internet, despite the fact that indecent materials are constitutionally protected by the First Amendment. To no one’s surprise the CDA was overturned unanimously by the U.S. Supreme Court. Case closed.

The CDA made for great copy in edtech circles, but in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t the most far-reaching story to come out of the 1996 Telecom Act. That credit must go to a brief, yet visionary clause that was nestled within the sprawling legalese of the Act. A little piece of legislation called the Snowe-Rockefeller Amendment set the stage for the creation of a program that would offer a discounted rate to schools and libraries wishing to connect themselves to the Internet. Four years later, this education rate, or E-Rate as it’s become known, has helped wire over a million classrooms and more than 10,000 libraries. Within a couple of years, nearly every school and library will be online, thanks in no small part to the E-Rate program.

Of course, just because we’re just short of wiring all of our schools and libraries doesn’t mean our education system is suddenly going to reinvent itself. The very nature of high-paced technology innovation interacting with slow-paced education reform puts the E-Rate into a very weird predicament indeed. The E-Rate is bringing the fastest-growing information revolution in human history into America’s educational institutions; institutions which typically reform themselves at a pace worthy of a Bolivian tree sloth after a filling lunch. The E-Rate may be connecting all of our schools, but are our schools ready for the new responsibilities that the E-Rate brings with it?

In the fall of 1998, the Benton Foundation worked with the EDC/Center for Children and Technology to produce a report that examines just how school administrators have responded to the E-Rate. The report, tentatively titled “The E-Rate in America,” reviewed the E-Rate funding process in four Midwestern school districts: Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee. Among its findings, the report noted several commonalities among the four school districts, some of which are worth noting:

Professional development needs are increasing geometrically. As one might expect, wiring a school district leads to a range of challenges, but as far as educators are concerned, professional development is at the top of the list. If teachers and librarians can’t learn how to utilize the Internet effectively and make it a powerful tool for themselves and students, districts might as well be burning money. The E-Rate is turning many schools into technology centers without a high-tech staff. Research suggests that schools must spend 30 percent of their technology budget on professional development, yet the national average is closer to only 3 percent. What good is having a nation of online schools and libraries if no one (except the students, of course) knows how to use them?

Schools depend on E-Rate funding, but E-Rate politics are volatile. Wiring schools ain’t cheap; each year the program has doled out nearly $2 billion in subsidies. Though a significant number of educational institutions were able to go online before the E-Rate, tens of thousands of others were left out of the Internet revolution simply because of the costs associated with it. For these schools and libraries, the E-Rate was a treasured gift. But the E-Rate isn’t a long-term slam dunk. There are numerous attempts in Congress to reform or kill the program, and it’s possible that personnel changes at the Federal Communications Commission (the folks who created the E-Rate) could lead to a group of commissioners that doesn’t support the E-Rate. What would happen if the E-Rate were suddenly shut down tomorrow? Next month? Next year? For those institutions that relied on the program in full, nothing short of sheer chaos.

The E-Rate has led to changes in district planning practices. As often happens when a huge pot of money becomes available to a large bureaucracy, the E-Rate has helped district administrators better work together. By making E-Rate funding a unified goal, staff members have put differences aside and improved communications. This new level of coordination between IT departments, curriculum planners, budget offices, and educators has helped districts receive significant amounts of E-Rate funding. The challenge, of course, is to sustain this coordination. Without it, who’s to say how effective local technology integration can be over the long haul?

Local leaders must learn about the impact of the E-Rate. The report found that some high-ranking administrators had their doubts about the E-Rate and whether it would ever come to fruition. And despite the fact that tens of thousands of schools and libraries have received E-Rate funding, certain doubts remain among education superiors and community leaders. It is vital for communities to buy into the E-Rate at the highest level, as well as for teachers, technology coordinators, and librarians to sing the praises of the program. Without the consistent support of superintendents, board members, and local leaders, schools and libraries will be hard-pressed to create a lasting vision for technology integration.

These findings suggest that while the E-Rate opens a range of technology opportunities for schools and libraries, its long-term impact is affected greatly by politics, administrative priorities, and community buy-in. Technology planning must go beyond the rudimentary plans that were required for each E-Rate application. Such policies must set measurable benchmarks for integrating technology into the curriculum. They must strategize for new technologies like broadband, digital TV and wireless networking. They must forge tangible partnerships with the surrounding community, such as Detroit’s decision to open E-Rate-funded computer labs as public technology centers. And they must constantly remind local leaders and their constituents that the E-Rate is the first step in a process of using technology to improve learning throughout the community—a process that cannot happen overnight, or without their support.

The E-Rate is laying the groundwork for a national education information network, yet its future is not set in stone. Schools and libraries must step up to the plate and make sure that this enormous investment isn’t squandered. There’s just too much at stake.

Communications to the author may be addressed to Andy Carvin, The Benton Foundation, 1800 K St. NW, Second Floor, Washington DC, 20006; phone: 202-454-5627; e-mail: andy@gsn.org.

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