When you grant access to a $ 4 billion fund and give fund participants relative autonomy in how they use those funds, ne’er-do-wells will sniff their way to the honey pot. Keeping them out can be a challenge. So goes the story of the federally administered Schools and Libraries Program, better known as E-Rate.
Established by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, E-Rate is a federal subsidy that helps schools and libraries–particularly those in disadvantaged areas–pay for telecommunications services (e.g., Internet access). The program runs a $3.9 billion fund today.
Schools and libraries that want to take advantage of E-Rate simply need to follow the program’s bid and approval process. Participants oversee the bidding process and choose their service provider. While participants are required to choose the most cost effective provider, there isn’t much of a check on whether they actually do: they need only self-certify that they chose the most cost effective bid.
E-Rate participant autonomy has been a problem as the program regularly faces allegations of fraud and abuse. These concerns prompted a GAO study and senate hearings in the early 2000s. Former Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-PA) told the New York Times, “You couldn’t invent a way to throw money down the drain that would work any better than this.” After the GAO reported its findings (2004), U.S. Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), Chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, said, “Unscrupulous vendors … fleeced the program while underserved communities and telephone customers pay the price.” Over the past decade, there have been a number of investigations and enforcement actions, resulting in civil as well as criminal penalties, including jail time for a few program profiteers.
Some noteworthy fleecing includes:
- The Atlanta Public School system misspent nearly $73 million in E-rate dollars giving contracts to vendors without requiring they go to the lowest bidder. The former technical director who ran the APS E-rate program, was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison for accepting nearly $300,000 in bribes from vendors.
- Puerto Rico wasted more than $100 million in program funds and its secretary of education was sentenced to three years in prison and fined $4 million.
- In the Chicago Public School system, some $8.5 million in equipment was stockpiled (better yet, the CPS and E-Rate were essentially paying twice for equipment that was never installed!).
- A company in the San Francisco Unified School District was required to pay $20.7 million in fines and restitution.
More recently, schools and libraries in the Chicago and New York City areas have been investigated for violating the competitive bidding process and taking E-Rate funds without actually providing E-Rate services. Those investigations are still underway, with dramatic raids last March.
Adding to the temptation for ne’er-do-wells are the millions of dollars left on the table in E-Rate funds each year. According to EducationDive, some $245 million in funds went unclaimed in 2014. It is almost hard to blame profiteers for seeking out what they perceive as free money, especially when they have so much control over the process.
There may be a lot of good intentions behind E-Rate. But in its current form and function, E-Rate is but one more example of a poorly administered federal funds that attract those able to game the system.
E-Rate funding, capped yearly at $3.9 billion, helps eligible institutions cover costs of Internet service. Participants can save anywhere from twenty to ninety percent of their Internet expenses—the precise amount being dictated by the economic standing of both the participating institution and the school district where it is located.
E-Rate and three other programs are part of the Universal Service Fund (USF), a system of subsidies born out of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 as a way to ensure affordable telecom rates across the country. Although the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) oversees the USF, the fund is managed by a nonprofit corporation called the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC).
Detailed information on how to apply for E-Rate can be found in the Schools and Libraries Program overview. Basically it works as a bidding process. An applicant fills out FCC Form 470, requesting specific services, and submits it to the USAC. The USAC then issues an RFP for telecom providers who want to bid for the requested services. After 28 days, the applicant can study the bids. When it selects one, it requests E-Rate funding by filing FCC Form 471 within a deadline set by the FCC (for FY2016 it is May 26).
The discount rate is generally determined by the size of the population, in the applicant’s school district, that qualifies for the National School Lunch Program. The applicant must also file Form 486, listing services for which funds are requested and ensuring compliance with the Children’s Internet Protection Act.
There are limits to what E-Rate can cover. The applicant is solely responsible for end-user equipment, like hardware and software, and also for any non-discounted portions of Internet services.
While it is a great opportunity to save money, E-Rate isn’t a free-for-all. To discourage abuse and misuse of the program, the FCC requires applicants to comply with a series of rules, notably:
- Compliance with state and local law. It’s not enough to follow the FCC standards only.
- Applicants cannot seek discounts for services not requested. In other words, services listed on Form 471 must match (or not exceed) services requested on Form 470.
- Fair, competitive bidding. Applicants are responsible for ensuring an open, fair, and competitive bidding process to select the most cost-effective provider.
- Document retention. Applicants must save all competing bids for services to demonstrate they selected the most cost-effective bid, with price being the primary consideration. Records should be kept for at least ten years after the last date of service delivered.
- CIPA compliance. Applicants must confirm compliance with the Children’s Internet Protection Act, which requires schools and libraries that receive federal funding to employ Internet filters that protect children from harmful content.
In spite of these rules, the wealth of funds in the E-Rate program can attract abuse. In response, the FCC created the USF Strike Force in 2014 and tasked it with combatting waste, fraud, and abuse of the USF programs. Federal agents have shown that they are serious about investigating alleged abuses. One widely publicized case in Ramapo, NY, recently led to several raids. We will look at that case and others like it in upcoming posts.