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Saturday, March 09, 2013

Same data, different conclusions

Funds for Learning's blog recently mentioned that E-Rate funding requests for cell phones are up 40% since 2008.  The author's conclusion?  Free the Priority Two funding, so schools don't have to rely on wireless technology.  My conclusion?  Throw cell phones (and wireless data plans) out of the program.

My other conclusion?  90% is too close to free.  The blog post mentions a recent troubling funding request, where a district is getting $6.3 million for wireless data connections for 12,500 netbooks.  The school district's share will be $700,000/year.  If they'd chosen to install WiFi in all their schools, it wouldn't have cost more than $2 million, saving the district at least $500,000, and the E-Rate program $4.8 million.  And the next year, the district would have saved $700,000, and the E-Rate $6.3 million.  [Niggle with me arguments about support costs, etc., and I'll counter with higher data rate.]  I'm guessing when the Superintendent heard that the district could get $6.3 million in funding, the fact that it was going to cost the district $700,000/year didn't raise any eyebrows.

Cutting the top discount to 75% would solve a myriad of problems, among them:
  1. Waste: A 90% discount creates an incentive to buy things you don't really need.  Imagine if you walked into Target and everything was 90% off.  How many shopping carts would you fill?  And how much of what you bought would you end up not using?
  2. Fraud: It's easy to fudge 10% of the cost of a purchase.
  3. Funding shortage: The E-Rate funding for Priority One would drop, since the USF's share would drop, which might leave more for Priority Two.  Add in the savings resulting from the reduction in waste, and maybe even suburban schools would see a little P2.
Cutting cell phones and wireless data plans from the program would help in two ways: 
  1. Abuse: "Off-campus use must be removed by cost allocation." (2013 ESL)  So every time an administrator's smartphone receives an email while not on school grounds, that should be recorded and removed from the funding request.  It's the most violated rule in the program.
  2. The bundled equipment quandary: Because the FCC didn't want to mess with the proud American tradition of a free cell phone with a two year contract, they opened a loophole through which a myriad of service providers are trying to drive their equipment.  And some of the cell phone deals are phone purchases disguised as service plans.
  3. Funding shortage: Removing any service from the program will save money.  Removing the service with the fastest-growing demand will help preserve the future.
Time to cut loose cell phones and put more applicant skin in the game.

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