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EducationSuperHighway Responds to E-rate Data Collection Concerns from Superintendents Association

Advocacy group EducationSuperHighway is refuting claims made by the School Superintendents Association (AASA) and the Association of Educational Service Agencies (AESA) that its data collection initiative might be detrimental to districts' E-rate applications. The two groups warned members yesterday that use of ESH's Item 21 Portal might slow down the processing of their applications or make use of private data in unforeseen ways.

EducationSuperHighway is a nonprofit organization devoted to ensuring "that every K-12 public school in America has the Internet infrastructure that students and teachers need for digital learning," according to their mission statement.

One tool the organization has deployed to that end is the Item 21 Portal, which asks districts submitting E-rate applications to give ESH copies of their Item 21 files describing their Internet pricing. Once a district submits the files to ESH, they can then email them to themselves to receive a PDF to submit to the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) along with the rest of their application.

Will the Portal Slow Down E-rate Applications?
In a Q&A written to inform members about the portal, AASA Executive Director Daniel Domenech and AESA Executive Director Lee Warne wrote that "after the Item 21 Portal PDF is submitted by the applicant, the ESH Item 21 data will be processed in the same manner as a paper submission, not an online submission. It takes time for USAC to process, match and upload non-online Item 21 attachments. This is time that ultimately delays the issuance of Funding Commitment Decision Letters."

"In fact that's absolutely not the case," said ESH CEO and Founder Evan Marwell. "USAC does not have a policy that people who file using their online tool get their applications reviewed before people who file with any other manner that they accept and in fact the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the chairman have said that they're very focused on making sure everybody's applications get processed in a rapid way this year, no matter how they filed."

"USAC may have to do a little bit of extra data entry if somebody files using a PDF from the Item 21 Portal, but we've actually offered to provide USAC that data in electronic form so they don't even have to do that," added Marwell.

How Will Data Collected by the Portal Be Used?
"Participation in the ESH Item 21 Portal represents an E-Rate applicant submitting information to a private group, and that gives us and our members concern," wrote Domenech and Warne. "We are hopeful that ESH will provide written assurances to clarify how they intend to use the portal information, who will ‘own’ the data, what privacy policies guide their use of the data and how those privacy policies coordinate with existing local, state and federal privacy policies."

Marwell said that a written policy will be posted to the ESH site soon, "and essentially what that says is that EducationSuperHighway will use the information to publish aggregate reports at the national, state and regional level that sort of summarize the key learnings from the information. That we will provide government agencies, including the FCC the United States Department of Education, states and intermediate units, with the specific data that we gather from districts and libraries within their jurisdiction…and that we will give districts and libraries access to both that aggregate information, but also to anonymized detailed information in their region. So we won't actually disclose any district's name unless that district has given us permission to do so."

(Update: The Item 21 Portal privacy policy has been posted at item21portal.org/privacy.)

"We will not be providing access to the data to commercial providers other than the sort of aggregate reports that we release to the general public," added Marwell.

Who Benefits From the Item 21 Portal?
"At this point," concluded Domechen and Warne, "the main beneficiary of the ESH portal is ESH, who in addition to collecting and aggregating the data, provides services and programs (at cost) related to upgrading internet infrastructure."

"Just to be really clear, we have never charged for any of our services and we have no intention of charging for any of our services because we've decided that to do so would hinder our ability to achieve our mission," said Marwell, "and as a result what we've done is gone out and raised philanthropic donations to support all of our work."

As to who else will benefit from the poirtal, Marwell said "Our view is that there will be many beneficiaries from participating in this process. First of all, the FCC will be a major beneficiary as they are highly interested in this information as part of their E-rate reform process. Second, we believe states and intermediate units within state departments of education will benefit because it will help them understand the lay of the land in their state and figure out what actions they can take to make more options available to schools so that schools and libraries can get the bandwidth they need at a price they can afford. And finally we think that districts and libraries themselves will benefit because it will create transparency for them in terms of understanding what are the kinds of pricing that's going on in their area and helping them identify new suppliers that they can ask for proposals and help them be better negotiators."

"We would have appreciated it if they had contacted us ahead of time and gotten correct answers to some of these questions," said Marlow, "but that being said, this is a new product and these kinds of things happen and we appreciate the feedback from them and are now clarifying many of these things on our Web site."

"Aftter all," he concluded, "we are a nonprofit with only one thing in mind, which is making sure that schools and libraries get the bandwidth they need at a price they can afford."

More information about EducationSuperHighway is available at educationsuperhighway.org. Go to aasa.org to read the blog post or download the Q&A sent to AASA and AESA members.

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