How Recent E-Rate Changes Will Affect Your School

Remote learning has dramatically raised the stakes for federal E-rate funding.

Despite an annual funding cap of $4 billion, anywhere from 25 to 50% of E-rate funds go unused each year. Rather than leveraging federal dollars to invest in internal connections, switches, educational software or hardware, many schools—faced with the demands of day-to-day programming—forego E-rate’s proposal drafting, bid submission, and evaluation processes.

With the advent of widespread remote learning, however, more schools are showing interest in E-rate and realizing the extent to which federal funds can help offset potential budget shortfalls resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than relying on per-pupil funding or donor support to offset technology expenses, schools can instead leverage the E-rate program to cover at least some of their technology costs and invest any resulting savings in other aspects of school programming. 

Recent changes to E-rate application deadlines, as well as structural aspects of the program, have broadened the opportunity for schools to make the most of the program’s funds. Whether schools choose to do so or not has taken on outsize importance, as administrators increasingly look to student and staff technology to help them accomplish their daily programming needs.

An extended deadline meant more time to submit funding proposals.

Most importantly, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which administers the program, extended the deadline for schools to apply for certain categories of funding until October 16th, pushing past an initial extension from mid-March to the end of April. 

Schools have used this new round of funding to enhance their existing internal connections, which in turn support student device use, live streaming, and expansions of Cloud-based software, all of which are instrumental to remote learning efforts. Although the extension has now lapsed, schools that were able to take advantage of the expanded window will likely find it easier to support the increased demand remote learning has placed on their existing technology infrastructure, potentially reducing the number of technical difficulties or outages they’ve experienced as a result of increased network traffic.

These new E-rate changes won’t, however, improve the “homework” gap.

While schools have welcomed such changes, the FCC has yet to address a more pressing issue unearthed by the pandemic: inequities in student internet access. Even the most well-resourced schools able to provide each student with his or her own device have struggled to address families’ lack of home internet access, the cornerstone of distance learning.

Absent distribution of WiFi hotspots or scaled-down “remote learning centers,” many students and families have struggled to fully access online instructional content. Without intervention by the FCC, families who lack internet access at home won’t see the benefits of a school’s enhanced internal connections or Cloud-based application support, which affect only devices within the school or those who are able to access applications remotely. Often termed the “homework gap,” the disparity in internet access among students and between schools has led district leaders and policy advocates across the country to lobby the FCC for intervention that would allow schools the funding flexibility needed to address this challenge.

School leaders should begin preparing their proposals for the 2021 school year, with the lessons of remote learning fresh in their minds.

As these efforts continue, school leaders should also begin preparing their FY 2021 E-rate funding applications to take full advantage of the program’s benefits, keeping in mind the many lessons of remote learning. From the increasingly central role of student and staff technology in day-to-day instruction to the potential benefits of asynchronous learning for certain students, leaders should think critically about how they might incorporate the positive aspects of distance learning into their regular school programming.

Of course, any such changes would require additional funding, and that’s where the E-rate program will prove critical. Contracting with an effective E-rate consultant early and taking the time to write an effective application can ultimately save schools thousands of dollars, which they can then use to address other instructional priorities.

Recent E-rate changes will “re-set” schools’ Category 2 funding levels for a five-year cycle.

More structural changes to the E-rate program should also influence schools’ planning for the 2021 fiscal year. As we’ve written previously, the FCC recently implemented funding changes that will freeze schools’ Category 2 amounts for set five-year cycles. 

Category 2 funds are especially useful for new and expanding schools that need to invest in costly purchases or upgrades of internal connections that form the backbone of a school’s technology infrastructure. As they begin planning their applications, schools should review their FY 2021 Category 2 funding level and work with their E-rate consultant and school leadership teams to think through how to make the most of each dollar. 

When selecting a provider, schools should similarly evaluate proposals with a critical eye. Does the provider have a track record of success working with similar schools? What accounts for the difference in price between one provider’s bid and another’s? If a school has worked with a provider in the past, are there compelling reasons to make a change, or does the school want to prioritize stability and continuity of service, at least in the short-term? Answering these questions can allow school leaders and their E-rate consultants to determine the most effective way to make use of their limited Category 2 funds. 

Lean into the consistency of the new E-rate changes to support long-term planning.

A shift to set, five-year funding cycles also allows schools to leverage the consistency in E-rate awards to support their long-term planning efforts. Faced with competing technology priorities, schools need not confine their decision-making process to a single year, but instead allocate each purchase to a particular year within the five-year cycle based on its urgency.

Knowing in advance how much the school can expect to receive in Category 2 funding each year can yield benefits to other budget areas. If they know they can count on a specific dollar amount for their internal connections in 2022, for example, school leaders may be able to devote funds saved as a result of E-rate to purchasing new curricular materials or professional development programming. 

At CTS, we help schools successfully execute their E-rate proposals so they can focus on their unique missions.

Faithfully executing your school’s instructional and non-instructional program is hard enough; let us take care of your E-rate challenges. Our team has worked with more than 60 schools across the United States to make the most of each federal E-rate dollar. Beginning with our bid submission, we take the time to learn about the unique mission of each school client and draft a proposal that accomplishes the school’s unique needs, all while remaining fiscally responsible.

Our team consists of many former school and network leaders who understand the unique constraints of the school and non-profit environment. As a result, we’re better able to, first, propose solutions that make sense for schools and, second, implement those solutions under a timetable and budget that conforms with school leaders’ expectations and needs.

As changes to the E-rate program continue to occur, our team stands ready to respond to the unique challenges presented by COVID-19 and help your school quickly adapt so you and your team can focus on your unique mission. Contact us today to learn more about our services, and how we can partner with your school to improve student achievement and accomplish your unique instructional vision.