Applications for E-rate funding for fiscal year 2021 must be submitted by March 25. The FCC program, which provides discounts of between 20 and 90 percent for broadband access for schools and libraries, is considered particularly vital during the pandemic.
Micah Rigdon, director of client services at Funds For Learning, a company that helps schools navigate the E-rate process, discussed what educators need to know regarding E-Rate applications this year.
1. How is The Pandemic Impacting the Process?
The pandemic has made calculating the funding your school qualifies for more difficult. “The E-rate program provides discounts based on the number of students who are eligible for The National School Lunch Program,” Rigdon says. “It's been more difficult for a lot of schools to determine their discount rates this year because they're not getting the same responses as they do in a typical year because every student right now is being offered free or reduced lunches through the USDA.”
The increased free-launch offerings are due to the pandemic but have had the unintended consequences of complicating funding calculations. As a result, schools that are having difficulty tracking this year’s numbers are permitted to use data gathered during the last school year on their applications.
2. What Are Other Changes This Year?
In the past, E-rate funding that went to equipment purchases was capped per school by the amount of students within that school and per library by its square footage. “Now the FCC is allowing applicants to determine that cap based on the total student population for an entire district instead of at each school site,” Rigdon says. This should be a welcome change for educators as it allows for far greater flexibility.
3. Could E-Rate Help Pay for Students’ Home Internet Access?
Currently, E-Rate funding can only be used to provide internet access at schools or libraries. With so much need for remote learning, many districts are helping to provide access to students at home so there is a strong push to change this stipulation. “We are seeing some headway that there could be a policy change at the FCC level,” Rigdon says. “President Biden has directed the FCC to consider how they can expand the program in that way. We now have a new acting chairwoman, Jessica Rosenworcel, overseeing the FCC commission and E-rate is one of the projects that she's paid special attention to. So, there is an opportunity for them to take a look at that and see how it can be expanded.”
4. When Should You Submit Your E-rate Application?
The submission window for E-rate applications opened January 15, but much as with filing taxes, people tend to file closer to the deadline (March 25), which isn’t ideal.
“I would encourage everyone who can to get their information together and file their application early,” Rigdon says. “The E-rate program administrator has already started reviewing applications that have been submitted early in the window. So there's a greater opportunity to receive funding decisions, more quickly, if you file early. There's one website that every applicant has to use. So it tends to get bogged down with traffic toward the end of the filing in windows, so you can avoid some of that.”
5. Why Documentation is Crucial
“There are many program rules in E-rate that determine whether what you're purchasing is eligible for discounts,” Rigdon says. “It's one thing to follow all of those rules, but it's a whole other thing to be able to prove that you follow those rules.”
For example, there's a 10-year documentation requirement for E-rate, and applicants can be audited at any point in that timeframe, so it's important to be able to show that you completed the requirements and followed the rules. “Being able to prove that you did something the right way seven years later without documentation is very difficult,” says Rigdon.