With Labor Day and school days fast approaching, thousands of classrooms that had hoped to get wired to the Internet this summer will have to stick to teaching by the book for at least a little while longer. An innovative national program called E-rate is struggling to divvy up sharply curbed funds to more than 30,000 applicants, including school districts, individual public and private schools, and public libraries.
In the increasingly Web-based world, only a quarter of all schools have Internet access, says Jodie Buenning, deputy director of outreach and communications for the Schools and Libraries Corporation, a nonprofit that oversees E-rate. The initiative, funded by phone companies and launched last January, intends to provide schools with bargain digital wiring, telecommunications service, and Internet access, and will be handing out discounts on all three ranging from 20% to 90%. But in June, in response to phone company concerns, the Federal Communications Commission cut the E-rate budget from $2.25 billion to less than $1.4 billion for 1998.
The result could be a big setback for school districts that are not poor enough to receive the maximum discount from E-rate but lack the means to raise money for internal wiring, the only service provided to poorest schools first, says Michelle Richards, director of federal programs at the National School Board Association. For now, she says, many schools are looking to winter and spring breaks to do the wiring—except for those few who signed summer construction contracts and must now wait for promised reimbursement.