E is for expensive

The E-rate program, which funds school technology, is riddled with waste and fraud, says a belated New York Times story.

When the El Paso school system wanted to upgrade its Internet connections three years ago, it tapped into a federal program that offers assistance for such projects.

The program paid the International Business Machines Corporation $35 million to build a network powerful enough to serve a small city. But the network would be so sophisticated that the 90-school district could not run it without help.

Foreseeing the problem, I.B.M. charged the district an additional $27 million, paid by the federal program, to build a lavish maintenance call-in center to keep the network running. The center operated for nine months. Then, with no more money to support it, I.B.M. dismantled it and left town.

The federal effort to help poor schools connect to the Internet, the E-rate program, which collects a fee from all American phone users to distribute $2.25 billion a year to such schools and libraries, wasted enormous sums as El Paso built its extravagant network in the 2001-2 school year, according to documents and federal lawmakers.

President Bush is letting the E-rate become an national entitlement, complains Cato.

Everyone would agree that textbooks are an indispensable teaching aid. Policy makers have never suggested, however, the inclusion of a hidden tax in the cost of new novels to help lower the cost of textbooks in the classroom. Such an absurd cross-subsidy would be considered inefficient and unfair. Yet that is how the E-rate program operates. Hidden taxes on the phone bills of average Americans cross-subsidize school wiring efforts.

Cato urges the president to dump the “Gore tax” and let states decide if the benefits of school technology merit extra funding.

About Joanne


  1. miggle's ghost says:

    They are supposedly investigating the spending of $73 million by the Atlanta Board of Mis-edumucation for their computer system after they found over $3 million in hardware collecting dust. But then, this is the same iggorant shiftless federal government that shook us down to construct a Home Security Department that secures no homes and a TSA that hires security guards with criminal records and broken legs to guard airport access.

  2. Seems to me that there are three more-or-less separate issues with the e-rate scandals:

    1)Mismanagement and outright fraud, which need to be rooted out and prosecuted as appropriate.

    2)This program seems to be an example of a common liberal philosophy: identify a perceived problem and throw money at it, without thinking any more deeply. But a vague feeling, combined with a budget allocation, does not constitute a strategy.

    3)A level of technological and business ignorance among many school administrators which is so extreme that computers seem to them to be a form of magic–and, somehow, the presence of these magical icons will cause beneficial things to happen.

  3. You could see this coming a mile away.

    Don’t think this only happened in government. Many businesses did the same thing and went bankrupt. The only difference is that the taxpayer has the burden and the government won’t go bankrupt just us taxpayers.

  4. Another thing that should be asked is where is the benefit to learn which comes from E-Rate?

    I haven’t seen any studies which show students learn better when using all this fancy hardware and in fact, the bulk of learning comes from reading and studying the material well in books.

    I’ll give a classic example, the advent of the scientific calculator (they were just coming on the market in the late 70’s) and didn’t do very much, and cost a fortune. These days I could buy a much more powerful calculator for about $20 (compared to back then), but does it help me understand the fundamentals of math any better (absolutely not).

    The introduction of the scientific calculator has lead to an entire generation of people unable to make change without the aid of a device (if anyone thinks i’m kidding, watch what happens when the register breaks down in a restaurant, and no one knows how to do math with pencil and paper).


  5. Tammy in Texas says:

    Internet access is needed because……….?????????

  6. Mark Odell says:

    David Foster wrote: 3)A level of technological and business ignorance among many school administrators which is so extreme that computers seem to them to be a form of magic–and, somehow, the presence of these magical icons will cause beneficial things to happen.

    Might we call this “cargo-cult computing”?

    Tammy in Texas wrote: Internet access is needed because……….?????????

    ……….the textbooks are inadequate?

  7. Making change is a function of addition and substraction. It has nothing to do with using a scientific calculator.

    We use computers online at our school alot. The web is a textbook with ten million pages in it. Learn to use it and the whole world is right there in real time.

    A few days ago a kid stopped me in the hall and described a moth he had just seen. We went over to a computer and I told him to go to google and type in ‘luna moth’ and there it was. I left the kid immursed in reading all about the critter. We could have gone to the library and maybe found a little about that moth but nothing like what we found in ten seconds on the web.

    But lord yes, the hardware gets out of date in no time. I hope it settles down soon. You can’t give away a five year old computer.


  8. “Learn to use (the web) and the whole world is right there in real time” I’m all for the web, obviously. But “learning how to use it” is pretty trivial. It’s mostly a matter of learning how to type and of learning the conventions that are expected by a particular operating system…certainly doesn’t compare with, say, learning formal logic in terms of intellectual depth.

    The problem is that schools assume that just because something *can* be done on a computer, it *should* be…hence, 3rd graders making fancy PowerPoint presentations. Does anyone seriously think this is a good use of time, let alone money?

  9. At that moment the kid wanted to know about this neat moth and we could make that happen right here right now. That’s important. Formal logic and intellectual depth were not of the moment.

    And yes, power point presentions are perfectly appropriate for third graders if it is the culmination of a properly done unit.

    Of course all this must be done properly with solid goals in mind. Getting everybody up to speed on this is a huge job. And the goal posts keep moving. remember there was no such thing as email when Bush the first was in office.

  10. 1)What are the benefits you see in 3rd grade PowerPoint presentations? What skills does one learn by using PowerPoint that are relevant to a 3rd grader?

    2)It’s not true at all that there was no such thing as e-mail when Bush I was in office. E-mail was heavily used in many corporations and government agencies.

  11. Atlas, I’ve been using email on the internet since 1982 (WWW wasn’t available back then, but
    email, ftp, gopher, archie, and veronica certainly were).

    The way email worked back then is you composed a letter, and you sent it, it would get queued up, and at periodic intervals, it would connect to another computer and forward the mail to that system, and the cycle continued, until your email reached it’s destination (could be anywhere from a day to 10 days back in the early 80’s), but yes, email was around before Bush the 1st πŸ™‚

  12. Whoops, you guys are both right. I had my facts wrong on the email. I should have gone to google to find out before I sent it off. Kinda ironic, huh.

  13. Give each school a cable modem.

    Then, if the kids want a network, let them build it.

  14. Rita C. says:

    Gopher came along later than 1982. I vaguely remember testing a beta version.

    In any case, I use the computer lab heavily for my classes. Beyond word processing and using the Internet for research, we also pay for access to several databases the kids use for research. Much cheaper than keeping copies of hundreds of periodicals and reference materials (our librarians do have paper copies of whatever space will allow). Now and then I throw in a powerpoint presentation or have them write a hyperlinked essay just for variety. The writing skills required are all the same as for a short essay, but adding the technology layer keeps it fresh for the kids. We also have a business department that teaches the Microsoft Suite, bookkeeping with Excel, etc. — real world stuff.

  15. In response to Atlas’ story about the kid and the moth, the one thing folks seemed to have missed is what it takes to make the internet a powerful tool, i.e. the ability to know what you’re looking for. Had Atlas not been there to tell the child to look up “luna moth,” the child would not have learned anything at all. Without an objective, the web is as useless, or even more useless than an encyclopedia.

    My point? The teacher is more important than the book, and likely always will be.

  16. Yep, I have no fear that my job will be outsourced to India. Those kids keep coming. In fairness, the luna moth is an easy one. A quite distinctive, light green, uniquely shaped moth.

    I think the final point we are all getting to is that computers and the web are tools that you can use to do work of various kinds. But you can’t just get in it and drive off at top speed. You need lessons about when how and where which functions are appropriate. You don’t use powerpoint all the time any more than you use low gear all the time.

  17. Eric Pobirs says:

    The calculator concept is backwards here. A person may be poor at performing basic math but a calulator will be of no help at all if you don’t unerstand the underlying principles. If you couldn’t set up the equation on paper how are you going to convey the problem to the calculator?

    You don’t allow a basic four function calculator in the lower grades for the same reason you wouldn’t, given the possibility, allow kids to use exoskeltons in P.E. You need them to develop mental and physical muscles. At some point when the student is dealing with more advanced stuff the calculator is no menace to learning. Just the opposite. If the kid is trying to master calculus you don’t want him wasting valuable class time multiplying a couple of 6 digit numbers by hand. If the student is allowed to take a calculus class it should only be after testing has proven the student do all the prerequisite operations by pencil and paper. The same testing will prove that a calculator is only replacing manual labor as opposed to lazy cheating.

  18. E-Rate can subsidize school telecommunications/IT in three areas.

    All school districts can qualify to have their telecommunications discounted. This ranges from plain old telephone service to connectivity for distance learning networks. This discount is on a sliding scale determined by the percentage of students taking free/reduced lunch.

    All school districts can qualify to have their internet access discounted. This runs the gamut from modem accounts to T-1’s depending on the district’s size, infrastructure, and degree of use. Same discount structure as above.

    High poverty school districts can qualify to have their “internal connections” discounted. This includes networking equipment such as switches, routers, and in some instances servers. Like the other two categories, the discount rate is determined by FRL, but because the cut-off is so high for this category all districts are receiving extremely high discounts. Almost without exception, the high profile examples of waste, fraud, and abuse have been in this category.

    E-rate discounts do not apply to desktop computers, notebooks, printers, or graphing calculators. Nor can you purchase PowerPoint or any other application with an E-rate discount.

    The range and quality of information available to K-12 students today rivals that available to their parents during their college years. As has always been the case, access to information does not guarantee learning, reasoning, and knowledge. However, it is a good set of ingredients with which to work and does much to supplement the terrible quality of today’s textbooks.

    E-rate has been a boon to distance education, which is a critcal resource for rural schools in many states. Even suburban and urban schools can take advantage of distance learning networks to broaden their offerings at the high school level. In my district, we host a medical terminologies course for our consortium that is a pre-requisite for students on several health services career prep programs. Our consortium also offers Japanese and Latin over the network, which give students options beyond French and Spanish.

    E-mail, voice-mail, and phones in individual classrooms make it easier for teachers and parents to keep in touch regarding students. District websites can also be a valuable resource for students, parents, and the community. Whether this should be paid for via the property tax, state funding, or programs like E-rate is a reasonable topic for debate. By and large, however, the majority of districts put their E-rate funds to productive uses.

  19. You throw government money at a project like this and people are surprised that it becomes corrupt?

  20. Richard Brandshaft says:

    David Foster, point 3:

    “A level of technological and business ignorance among many school administrators which is so extreme…”

    This stuff is hard. I spent my working life (I am now mostly retired) as a computer programmer. I have two small networks at home, connecting 3 desktops and a couple of laptops. (Two networks because I have a separate network for on-line. My main computer doesn’t have a phone line attached. The ultimate firewall.)

    I hired someone who spent a few hours setting it up, and probably spends a total of an hour or two a year on the phone with me. My brother, who is smarter and more knowledgeable about computers than I am, hired the same guy to maintain his small business network. Could I learn to do this for myself? Probably, in a year or two. It’s a lot easier to hire someone.

    The point is, elitist and arrogant as it may sound, you can’t blame the school administrators for being out of their depth with a computer problem I find hard. If the newspaper story is correct, the villain in the lead item is IBM, which knew damn well it was leaving its customers in a untenable position. But the “if” clause in the last sentence isn’t pro-forma; reporters aren’t all that good at technological issues.