Although school districts around the country are finalizing their applications for the last year in the current five-year E-rate funding cycle, the government hasn’t yet announced how the program’s funding mechanism will work going forward.

E-rate, the common name for the Schools and Libraries Program of the Universal Service Fund, provides K–12 schools with funding to support their IT networks. For the current five-year cycle, the program allots schools a $150-per-student budget for projects initiated during the time window, with reimbursement rates varying according to a school’s percentage of students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch. Before the current five-year cycle, schools could apply for funding in two out of the five years, with no hard cap on project budgets. It’s unclear whether future funding practices will follow those of this current cycle, the previous cycle or some other model.

But in a way, the broader details don’t matter. While E-rate is a vital source of funding for schools, it doesn’t necessarily change their overall networking needs. And although new funding rules likely won’t be announced for months, educational IT leaders can prepare now by approaching the issue in four steps.

Assess the Existing Network

According to the 2018 K– 12 IT Leadership Survey Report from CoSN, broadband and network capacity are top priorities (tied with cybersecurity) for K–12 IT leaders. This suggests that many districts still lack the capacity they need, even after significant investments over the past several years. When planning for the future, it’s important to carefully catalog these recent investments — including purchases that have yet to be implemented. A comprehensive network inventory can help school IT leaders clearly see what resources they already have to work with, as well as where gaps remain.

Plan Out Refresh Timelines

Several years ago, schools rushed to improve network capacity in preparation for online standardized tests. This was largely successful, with CoSN reporting last year that 80 percent of districts are now ready or almost ready to conduct online assessments — a “complete reversal” from 2013, when another survey showed that 80 percent of schools would not meet the requirements for online tests. This means that schools across the country installed a huge amount of networking infrastructure over a five-year period, and much of that infrastructure will need to be refreshed at some point over the next five years. To avoid performance degradations, schools should have a plan to replace aging equipment in a timely manner.

Consider Consultants

Some districts have found the E-rate application process to be unwieldy, to the point that some schools have simply skipped it in the past. Other districts have worked closely with E-rate consultants to help guide them through the process. The current moment, with future funding processes still being decided, provides an opportunity for schools to consider whether working with a consultant might be the right move for them in the next cycle. I always suggest that district officials speak with leaders at districts of a similar size to get recommendations about effective consultants. Some smaller districts may find that a consultant’s fee would nearly eclipse their entire E-rate funding, making working with a consultant less appealing. (It’s important to note that consultants must be paid with district funds, rather than with E-rate grant money.)

Anticipate Future Needs

Of course, even the highest performing IT network isn’t desirable for its own sake; it is there to support specific use cases that promote student learning. School IT leaders should think through the technology initiatives they plan to roll out over the next five or more years, and then design a network that will support these new technologies. For some districts, this might be an increase in student devices (according to CoSN, 34 percent of elementary schools have already implemented one-to-one student device programs, with another 30 percent planning to do so). Other districts might have their eyes on emerging technologies such as augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR). Whatever solutions they plan to deploy, schools can set themselves up to improve their networks during the next E-rate cycle by doing some careful planning today.

To learn more about how CDW•G can help you upgrade your school or library, visit our E-rate web page.

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