Policy & Funding

E-rate Delays and Denials 'Unjust,' According to EducationSuperHighway

It appears that some schools are caught in an E-rate funding slowdown so worrisome, EducationSuperHighway was compelled to create a dedicated website to track the scale of the problem. "Delays and Denials" provides what the non-profit calls a status report on the number of days school districts are now waiting "to discover the fate of their fiber projects" (currently, 245) and the likelihood that their applications will be denied (seven times more likely than this time a year ago). Currently, the new site reported, 61 fiber projects have been "unfairly denied," and 38 are still awaiting decisions from last year.

The organization blames the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees E-rate program administrator Universal Service Administration Company (USAC). The FCC could accelerate approval of fiber broadband projects, the new site asserted, by directing USAC "to eliminate the red tape in the E-rate application process."

According to EducationSuperHighway, USAC is denying projects for "unjust reasons" outside of the main criteria: Whether a district is eligible for the funding, whether it has followed the competitive bidding rules and whether it has selected the most cost-effective bid. A common theme among the applications being denied is that the school systems where service providers have separated the fiber construction charges from the monthly recurring cost face greater scrutiny and "are more likely to be denied than those" that bundle the fees together.

Also, EducationSuperHighway charged, several recent changes to the application process have led to confusion among applicants, whose projects face rejection due to clerical errors. That was the case with New Mexico's Central Consolidated, whose funding request was denied "because of a minor discrepancy on their paperwork." In a separate allegation, Woodman School District 8, a rural system in Montana, has such poor bandwidth, it's forced to bus students to another district in order to give them online state tests. When Woodman applied for funding to cover fiber, the school received an "unanswerable 30-page questionnaire." And 250 days later, according to the account by EducationSuperHighway, the funding was denied.

The school broadband advocate would like to see the FCC direct USAC to approve all outstanding fiber projects as long as they've selected the most cost-effective bid; to re-evaluate all previously delayed or rejected applications and reverse the ones that were denied for unfair reasons; and to prioritize future fiber funding requests so that decisions are made by Sept. 1 in the same year the applications are filed. To push the point, EducationSuperHighway has composed a letter for districts to fill in and send to their senators requesting them to pressure the FCC to make the needed changes.

Ironically, problems with the application process was the focus of a letter sent last April by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to then-USAC CEO Chris Henderson. In the letter Pai complained about "serious flaws" in USAC's administration of the E-rate program, particularly those related to the funding process. Henderson resigned weeks later. In January USAC announced the appointment of Radha Sekar as the new CEO. Sekar previously served as CFO for the Farm Service Administration and the Commodity Credit Corp. of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Her appointment was approved by Pai in mid-December.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.