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Celebrating transformative effects of E-rate

This is a guest post from Katherine Dean, our spring intern joining us from The Catholic University of America’s library and information science department. Katherine has 3 semesters left in her MLIS program and has been focusing her studies on cultural heritage information management and equitable access to information. She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with Bachelor of Arts in History with a minor in Religious Studies.

Last week marked the 20 year anniversary of the implementation of the E-rate program. To mark the occasion, ALA joined several other organizations on the Hill to celebrate the program’s success, and consider its future.

As institutions that have undergone significant change throughout the years, particularly in information technologies, libraries are leading the charge in the fight for equitable access to information. – Larry Irving, President and CEO of the Irving Group

The program began with remarks from Senators Edward J. Markey and John D. Rockefeller, IV, who returned to the Hill for the occasion, his first time back on the Hill since he left office. Rockefeller recalled some of the resistance the program encountered at the beginning, but both he and Markey agreed that, in the end, passing E-rate was a bipartisan effort. As Markey pointed out in his remarks, children are 20% of the population and 100% of the future, a fact no lawmaker could ignore.

Evan Marwell, founder and CEO of EducationSuperHighway, provided an overview of the program’s progress and improvements due to the 2014 modernization. Most significantly, the program’s funding increased from $1.4billion to $3.9billion, with $1billion dedicated to providing reliable Wi-Fi. While his presentation emphasized the transformative impact of E-rate, he noted areas where the program can still make a critical difference, such as the 6.5 million students still lacking internet access.

Perhaps the highlight of the summit was the panel, providing those in attendance with first-hand accounts of the programs and technologies libraries and schools have been able to provide thanks to E-rate funding. The diverse panel included: Lauren Abner of the Kentucky Dept. for Libraries and Archives; Adam Dubitsky, Director of Policy in the office of the governor, Maryland; Larry Irving, President and CEO of the Irving Group; Dale McDonald of the National Catholic Educational Association; and Lenny Schad, of the Houston, Texas Independent School District.

All panel members emphasized the transformative effects of E-rate on their state or institution. McDonald noted that the “E” in E-rate stood for equal, that the program served as an equalizer between students of varied economic statuses and schools with different amounts of funding.

Schad provided an example from his school district in Houston explaining that E-rate not only provided a discount on internet and broadband access but also allowed schools to reallocate money saved to provide new technology for the students. Abner described a program in a Kentucky library made possible by E-rate. With the money saved by the program, a library was able to purchase hotspot devices to loan out to families and individuals. The future of E-rate had all panel members agree that more technologies, such as the hotspot devices, ought to be considered by the program, and that the application process ought to be streamlined.

Abner’s remarks bolster recommendations made in the release of ALA’s newest brief, Libraries and E-rate: Leveraging Broadband to Provide Opportunity Across the Nation, released at the anniversary event.

Before the panel ended Irving explained that the most important institutions involved in E-rate were easily the libraries. As institutions that have undergone significant change throughout the years, particularly in information technologies, libraries are leading the charge in the fight for equitable access to information. He said that libraries were essential participants in E-rate as the program allows them to serve students who lack home internet connections and computers, further bridging the homework-gap.

Lastly, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel gave remarks about the future of E-rate. The main priority now, she said, was not only to provide affordable internet access to libraries and schools but to ensure that those connections are high-speed broadband connections.

Overall the summit was an exciting introduction to the collaboration between policy makers, education coalitions, FCC commissioners, and ALA. I am already looking forward to my next hearing!

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Emily Wagner

Emily Wagner is the assistant director of knowledge management and communications at the American Library Association's Washington Office. She holds a bachelor's degree from Mount Holyoke College and a master's in library and information science from Catholic University.

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