A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reveals that roughly $5 billion of the $19.5 billion in E-Rate funds committed to schools and libraries from 1998 to 2006 were never spent. This article from eSchool News does a good job of summarizing.

For those who don’t know, the E-Rate program helps schools and libraries pay for Internet connectivity. If roughly 25 percent of funds over that period were not used, does that indicate that schools don’t need the funds?

Far from it. Many schools lag in their Internet connectivity, and of those that are hooked up to high-speed connections, many don’t have enough capacity to handle large groups of people online at the same time. This of course limits the ability of online learning to transform education into a student-centric system as we write about since it limits how robust and dynamic an online learning experience can be.

So why would these funds not be claimed then? There are a few reasons, which range from the fact that the applicant’s needs changed or they needed fewer dollars than they applied for to the fact that the sheer complexity and bureaucratic red-tape in the program often caused people to leave money on the table—or, speaking from what I’ve heard on the road—not apply.

This suggests a few things. First, as we think about sending more funding down for broadband, we ought to figure out ways to first use funds already allocated for the cause.

Second, we can learn some valuable lessons from North Carolina’s work with E-Rate. The state of North Carolina saw that many smaller districts would not apply for the E-Rate funds because of the bureaucratic red tape and they just didn’t have the time or manpower to devote to it. As a result, the state stepped in and helped the districts apply for the funds, which has helped North Carolina extend broadband across the state to get every school online.

This effort of course also suggests that the process for applying for funds for broadband needs to be simplified.

And lastly, the federal government should push districts to install the bandwidth necessary not just for today’s needs, but also in anticipation of tomorrow’s. This might include installing wireless and extending that access to the broader communities, not just the school buildings, for example. When we invest in infrastructures of change today, we should do so with an eye toward the future, not just the present.

– Michael B. Horn


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.