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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

E-Rate important or unused

I just got an email from E-Rate Central with a link to a survey of ed tech done at the T+L conference this year. Of course I skimmed everything until I reached the E-Rate questions.

So how important is the E-Rate? Over 40% of the respondents said "very important." And that's why the E-Rate has survived 6 years of a hostile President and Congress; the typical Congressman would have to show real fortitude to cut a program that's helping so many kids in her/his district.

But more interesting: almost 20% of attendees said they don't apply. Understand, this is a technology conference. Luddite districts do not send teams. Any yet, among these tech-savvy districts, 20% don't apply. That is a shame. The process has to get easier. Either that or I need to improve my marketing efforts until On-Tech is managing the E-Rate for all those districts.

There was also a question about improving the E-Rate, and I was surprised to see that one-third of respondents thought sanctions against wrong-doers would improve the program. Real abuse of the program takes a tiny fraction of the funding, so if every ne'er-do-well was thrown in jail, we really wouldn't see any positive effect for the rest of us. I don't even think that the amount of fraud would go down: in most cases, the people who have been caught thought they had come up with a new scam that would work.

Also, I'm not in favor of punishing people who make mistakes, and then you have the difficulty of saying what's a mistake and what's a scam. Take the Ysleta case, where IBM and several school districts (including Ysleta) created a purchasing process that they thought complied with E-Rate rules, but allowed them to avoid the traditional competitive bidding process. I don't think the people involved thought they were scammers; they were just trying to do what was best for the district given the E-Rate's bad bidding rules. Yet looked at another way, districts colluded with a vendor to subvert the competitive bidding process. And since they got away with it one year before the SLD figured out what was going on, you could say they were repeat offenders. I think it would have been a shame for Ysleta or IBM to have suffered sanctions. So how can we draw the line?

The answer is, just the way it's being done: you get convicted of defrauding the program, you're out. I think debarments should last for 10 years or more, instead of the measly 3 years that's being handed out now. But I don't support a separate set of sanctions.

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