By Oscar S. Cisneros
Some Inland pupils may not be hooked up to the Internet as soon as once expected because a dispute over how to pay for such projects led to cuts in federal funding.
In the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress created a program called "e-rate," which could provide $2.25 billion in technology subsidies to schools and libraries. But key members of Congress pressured the Federal Communications Commission to cut funding by almost half to $1.26 billion after phone bill fees prompted complaints from consumer groups and members of Congress.
The neediest schools were set to receive the most funds, but all schools were eligible to apply for subsidies for technology projects like computer networks.
"If you live in Silicon Valley, you are already connected," said Roger Powel, director of information systems for the Moreno Valley Unified School District. "If you live in Moreno Valley, and you don't have IBM as your neighbor, you're at a big disadvantage."
Moreno Valley is one of 30,000 schools, libraries and school districts that have applied for subsidies totaling $2.02 billion.
The resulting $763 million shortfall means many of those schools will have to delay plans to modernize their campuses and connect to the Internet. The nation's poorest schools, however, will get priority funding.
Consumer Action, a San Francisco-based advocacy group, called e-rate a "social program" that should be funded through taxes, not phone bills.
"There is a crucial need for schools and libraries, especially poor ones, to get connected to the Internet," said Ken McEldowney, executive director of Consumer Action. "The problem is, of course, that it raises phone rates."
But Angela Ledford, executive director for Keep America Connected, disagreed. She said that the FCC reduced the charges that long-distance companies pay to use telephone networks in return for increasing their contribution to the Universal Service Fund, which includes funds for e-rate.
"There was $1.5 billion in reductions -- that's more than enough to pay for the Schools and Libraries Fund and to give consumers savings on their telephone bills," she said.
Far from the world of consumer groups and long distance companies, the tug-of-war over fees could leave Inland schools without enough cable to make computers meet. The FCC's cuts could derail Moreno Valley's plans to connect more than 1,000 of its classrooms to the Internet, Powel said.
"If we do away with e-rate, I have no idea when school districts are going to have the the money to do this," Powel said. "It's just the wrong thing to do -- they made a commitment to the schools."
The FCC's decision does not signal a complete loss for schools, said Lou Pelini, administrator of planning and development for the San Bernardino County superintendent's office.
The poorest schools will get the first shot at the funds, he said. While all others must settle for less, the neediest schools will enjoy priority funding for projects like purchasing and installing computer networks.
School and federal officials will determine the level of subsidy based on the percentage of low-income families served on each individual campus. For example, schools like Marshall Elementary in Chino would be eligible for a 90 percent subsidy on technology projects. Others, like Cram Elementary in Redlands, would get a 40 to 50 percent subsidy.
Schools will not receive a lump sum of money. Instead, they will receive bills only for part of the amounts owed, Pelini said. For example, a campus eligible for a 50 percent subsidy on phone line costs would receive a monthly statement for half the bill, Pelini said. E-rate's parent company, the nonprofit Schools and Libraries Fund Corp., would receive a bill for the other half.
For the poorest schools, the subsidy also can be applied to "servers" and "routers" -- powerful and expensive computers that direct traffic on a computer network, he said.
Although only the most disadvantaged schools will receive money to wire their campuses, the FCC left intact subsidies for telecommunications costs like phone lines and the money schools pay Internet service providers for Internet access, Pelini said.
Many districts have thousands of phone lines so e-rate subsidies would help reduce the cost of maintaining those lines, he said.
"The bad news is that you're going to get your money late and spread out over a longer period of time. I can live with that," Pelini said.
Pelini said that calculating e-rate savings can be difficult. Connecting just one classroom to the Internet, for example, can have unforeseen costs not covered in the subsidy.
E-rate will help pay for the wire to connect a classroom, he said, but not the tube used to bury it in the ground nor cleanup costs for any asbestos discovered during the installation.
More than 350,000 students will be affected by the e-rate application filed by a group of San Bernardino County school districts called the San Bernardino Technology Joint Powers Authority, Pelini said.
The consortium has requested a $4 million subsidy for telecommunications costs, Pelini said. Under the FCC's new guidelines, those funds should be awarded.
But the consortium's bid to link all 33 of its constituent districts via a computer network may not be realized because of reductions in the program.
Pelini said such a network would cost approximately $100 million to build. The districts had planned to use e-rate subsidies to stretch dollars from a previously awarded $24 million state grant to complete their network.
"From the standpoint of our project, we have a feeling that we'll get that money, but that we'll get it later than we planned," he said.
Although individual schools were encouraged to apply for their own projects if they wished, Pelini said San Bernardino County schools districts opted for a consortium application. In Riverside County, meanwhile, districts and campuses applied on their own.
Neil Mercurius, administrator of technology for the Jurupa Unified School District, said there are many advantages to linking schools through computer networks.
The wide area network Mercurius described could be used to connect all district campuses and offices on one loop. Once on this loop, teachers and district staff could share information easily and instantly.
In the time it takes to send one fax, for example, thousands of pages can be sent over a network.
Also, if one library purchases resources on disk -- like encyclopedias or other works of reference -- this information can be shared by students across the network on different campuses.
In a networked environment, school children in different classrooms can communicate with each other and collaborate on projects through teleconferencing and other forms of transmission.
A computer network brings multiple benefits from reducing administrative workloads to providing students with vivid instruction, Mercurius and Pelini agreed.
"Just to make someone Internet literate is a small part of that task -- you want to make sure that technology is integrated into the curriculum," Pelini said. "Our kids can sit and watch a live space probe and the data coming from it -- that's a real exciting way to learn physics."