ANNAPOLIS – It may be difficult to keep Maryland’s poorer schools wired to the Internet if the two-month freeze on federal “E-Rate” funds continues, school officials said Tuesday, after the Senate Commerce Committee met to discuss the program’s future.
E-Rate was established by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 as a way to provide low-income school districts and public libraries access to phone and Internet services. Program funds were halted in August after the Federal Communications Commission found that some of the money may have been misused by recipients and overseers may have mismanaged the funds.
Through this $2.25 billion program, local service providers can give substantial discounts to poor districts based on the number of students receiving free and reduced price lunches.
“E-Rate had a significant impact on access by closing the digital divide because it is used in high-poverty school districts,” said June Streckfus, Maryland Business Roundtable executive director.
But accusations of fraud and managerial blunders among those in charge are putting the program’s future at stake. A total of $300 million supposed to go to schools and libraries is being reviewed to see if the money was misused.
“If delays continue, companies won’t be reimbursed on time and schools won’t be able to put E-Rate into next year’s budget,” said Anne L. Bryant, National School Board director, who sits on the board of the non-profit overseeing program funds.
While some districts like Harford County secured this year’s E-Rate funds before the freeze began, others did not.
Carroll County doesn’t anticipate seeing any money from E-Rate this year.
“We didn’t even figure in the money this year, because of problems we faced last year,” said Gary Davis, Carroll County Public Schools chief information officer.
Endless hours spent filling out paperwork, a lack of legal support to address stalled funding and abundant clerical errors were among Davis’s complaints. The county is still missing money from three years ago, he said.
Carroll County schools are a low priority because of the limited number of students receiving free and reduced price lunches — but frustration exists statewide.
While Carroll County, with only 10 percent of their students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches, depends on E-Rate for more than 40 percent of its technology funds — lower-income school districts rely much more heavily on the federal money.
Davis cited Baltimore City and Prince George’s County — with more than half their students receiving free and reduced-price lunches — as jurisdictions where effects might be most severe.
Baltimore City and Prince George’s counties failed to comment.
“When I meet with my peers they have the same types of problems,” Davis said.
Representatives from the Federal Communications Commission insist that the setback is temporary.
“The problems with schools and libraries is a temporary cash flow problem that came about when the FCC moved to apply more stringent accounting standards,” said Mark Wigfield, an FCC spokesman. New accounting standards are to be reviewed in November.
School administrators in Worcester County have confidence in the FCC’s statement and are working on their application to be submitted next month.
But if allegations like the ones made by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., at the Senate Commerce Committee Tuesday persist, it may be a while before schools see their money.
Requests by the FCC to Congress for funding to pay more E-Rate auditors went unaddressed and now “tales of waste, fraud and mismanagement are circulating,” said McCain, Commerce chairman.
The Universal Services Administrative Co. — in charge of overseeing the money — is being accused of poor management including sitting on more than $3 billion, losing money through unwise investments and not thoroughly investigating how districts used their money.
“It’s a bad idea to punish everyone for the lack of ethics of a few,” said Patrick Kelly, Frederick County Public Schools executive director of technology. E-Rate enabled schools within Maryland and throughout the nation to collaborate and those efforts are now being undermined, he said.
National education officials feel similarly.
“The program is integral to increase the individual learning capacity of students in needy school districts,” said Bryant.
While Congress and the FCC battle it out over who should be held accountable, low-income school districts face the most severe repercussions.
“Places where the number of students receiving free and reduced-price lunches is higher will really be struggling,” said Davis. “The freeze is not the approach I would take because a lot of people depend on this.”