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ISTELive 22: Advocacy Groups Generated Billions for E-Rate

Panelists in a session at the ISTELive 22 annual conference emphasized the importance of advocacy groups, and how supporting them can lead to major dollars going to schools and ed tech through legislation.

A screenshot of a panel session at the ISTELive 22 Conference.
A panel session during the ISTELive 22 Conference in New Orleans this week explained the need for advocacy groups to lobby to Congress for E-rate funds.
Don’t take federal funding for granted.

That was the message from E-rate and ed-tech policy leaders in a panel at the annual ISTELive 22 conference this week in New Orleans, organized by the International Society for Technology in Education. At the panel session titled “E-Rate, Homework Gap and Edtech Policy: What’s It All About?” speakers urged educators and administrators to support advocacy groups such as ISTE and the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), as those groups lobby legislators in Washington, D.C., for funding through the federal E-rate program, as well as emergency relief monies that came from the CARES Act, Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, and the American Rescue Plan Act.

Dr. Sheryl Abshire, a retired chief technology officer most recently with Calcasieu Parish Public Schools in Louisiana, said that advocacy groups led to changes in previous years with the E-rate program, which she said is among the largest resources in improving student learning. The ed-tech community must continue to let advocacy groups know how important the program is to them, she said.

John Harrington, the CEO of ed-tech consulting firm Funds For Learning, and Bernstein Strategy Group President Jon Bernstein broke down how funds generated through bills were dispersed. Giving credit to those advocacy groups, Harrington said that about half of the requested funding this year, $1.57 billion, was committed by May 31. That’s up from $50 million committed by May 31 in 2017. The number has continued to improve over the past half decade since, he said.

“The overall trajectory of the program, from an administrative efficiency perspective, is very positive,” Harrington said in the session.

Funds For Learning, in its 2021 E-Rate Trends Report (the 2022 report has yet to be released) that surveyed more than 2,000 program applicants, or 10 percent of applicants, found that the program is providing faster funding and more affordable access to broadband than in the past. It is supporting record numbers of sites and students, Harrington said of the report’s findings.

Applicants in the report said they want more support in dual lines and cybersecurity, and a more reliable Internet connection, Harrington said. He added that the major items of note to address in 2022 include the need for more funding in the Emergency Connectivity Fund, which has run out. There is now a plan to require vendors to submit competitive bids to Universal Service Administrative Company, which oversees the E-rate program, instead of vendors bidding directly to districts, he said.

Harrington said that 132,013 schools and libraries received funding through the program this year, with virtually an even split of money doled out to Category 1 (off-site) and Category 2 (on-site) services, at $1.6 billion.

Breaking down the CARES Act funds, which must be obligated by the end of September, Bernstein said that $3.01 billion went to the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER), much of which was used for ed tech; $13.5 billion went to K-12; and $14.23 billion went to higher ed.

The Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, which passed in late 2020, says that funds must be obligated by the end of September 2023. From that bill, the GEER Fund received $4.1 billion, of which $2.75 billion went to private schools; K-12 received $54.3 billion; and higher ed received $22.7 billion, Bernstein said.

With ARPA, funds have a longer shelf life, needing to be obligated by the end of September 2024. From that, K-12 received $122.7 billion, distributed to states on a Title 1 poverty formula; private schools through GEER received $2.75 billion; higher ed was provided $39.58 billion; and E-rate was handed $7.17 billion.

Specifically of the K-12 ARPA funds, Bernstein said that technology was a major focus, with 47 percent of districts purchasing tech to combat learning loss. Other expenditures included tech for improving external communications and cybersecurity, professional development, software development and expanding Wi-Fi and hot spots within schools and homes, he said.

Bernstein said that the ECF, a fund that flows through the E-rate program and was created to help connect students to the Internet as schools went to virtual learning during the pandemic, is pivotal to correcting the homework gap — but funds are spent. The digital divide is still preventing students from going home and getting their work done, and Bernstein said there must be a solution to tackle this.

“It has done a significant job. The problem is that these funds are limited,” Bernstein said. “And now that we’ve run out of them, we don’t know what is going to happen next.”


Giovanni Albanese Jr. is a staff writer for the Center for Digital Education. He has covered business, politics, breaking news and professional soccer over his more than 15-year reporting career. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Salem State University in Massachusetts.