Using E-Rate Funding to Launch Digital Learning

Education has changed considerably since the idea of putting a device into each students’ hands turned into a realistic option for schools.  Unfortunately, at this time of great possibilities also comes sweeping cuts in funding.  Schools are faced with trying to do more with less.  As luck would have it, in the past couple of years, billions of additional dollars have been channeled into modernizing and reforming the E-rate program to benefit schools and libraries.  And although this funding can’t be used to purchase additional student devices, there are several ways to utilize E-rate funding to help launch digital learning in your school.

You have to apply!

Government programs tend to be complicated and E-rate is no exception.  While you may feel as confused as a chameleon in a bag of Skittles, taking the step to apply will be worth it.  Many schools opt to utilize an E-rate consultant to help them jump through the necessary hoops.  Whether you utilize a consultant or take the DIY approach, it’s no longer a question of if you should apply for E-rate, it’s a question of how you are going to use the funding. 

Unlike past years where most schools did not get funded, there is now more money in the program than the Federal Government knows what to do with.  Every single eligible E-rate request for the last two years was funded and there were billions of dollars left over. This includes requests for Category One (Data Transmission Services and Internet Access) and Category Two (Internal Connections, Managed Internal Broadband Services, and Basic Maintenance of Internal Connections).  The program is no longer just for the schools in very low-income areas. Still, many districts which did not qualify prior to the reform in 2014 aren’t comfortable enough or familiar enough with the program to apply now.  Any money you get to spend on eligible projects or services frees up money to spend elsewhere. That’s all there is to it. Not applying for E-rate amounts to educational malpractice.

Identify what you really need.

Begin by reviewing the list of E-rate eligible services and make sure you’re utilizing E-rate dollars for any current spending that falls within the categories.  Once you have determined your discount rate and identified eligible purchases and services, the challenge becomes intelligently using that saved money to advance the mission of the school.  This step requires a full commitment on the part of all school personnel because big steps will be made away from “the way it’s always been done.” 

Instead of looking at the budget as it exists today and trying to work in technology purchases, examine your budget in terms of what spending can be reduced or eliminated through the use of technology. Schools that are moving to more of a digital workflow can often save a great deal of money just by making a conscious effort to send announcements, forms, lunch calendars, newsletters, etc., electronically; thereby reducing the amount spent on copy paper and toner.  In the classroom, by eliminating the purchase of new textbooks ($70+ each) and workbooks ($15 per student, per class, per year) and moving toward Open Educational Resources and other free online content, schools can not only save money but deliver a more up-to-date and engaging curriculum.  Investing in additional technology doesn’t always mean that you have to come up with additional funding if you’re open to reprioritizing and restructuring spending to meet your needs.

Refocus key resources on student learning.

It is heartbreaking to hear of schools cutting teaching positions and important subjects such as art, music, languages, and even physical education because of fiscal constraints.  Before any instructional cuts are made, non-instructional tasks must be evaluated for outsourcing.  In corporate America, tasks not tied directly to the main business purpose are regularly outsourced.  Heck, households do the same.  Yes, I could learn to repair my own car, bake my own pizza, and take our household trash to the junkyard; however, I couldn’t do it as efficiently or as effectively as a mechanic, the pizza parlor down the road, or the trash collector that comes every Wednesday.  Through utilizing the services of others, those things get done properly and my time is freed up for other things.  Schools need to examine the same approach with non-instructional services such as food service, custodial services, transportation, and technology. 

So, how does this relate to E-rate?  With the modernization and reform in 2014, a new category of service became eligible for E-rate support: managed internal broadband services or managed Wi-Fi.  This allows schools to leverage E-rate funding to pay for the support of the network devices and operation of the network.  One thing to keep in mind, however, is that you cannot use E-rate dollars to pay your own employees.  While the funding can’t be used to pay for student devices or other instructional technology either, by outsourcing those responsibilities to an E-rate approved vendor, you can reduce payroll expenditures and/or shift technology personnel into positions that more directly impact teaching and learning in your school. 

 

Posted by Christine Smith, All Covered Teacher & Learning Consultant/Trainer