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New E-Rate savings bring speedy internet to more students

E-Rate discounts range from 20 percent to 90 percent
The Lafayette Parish School System was granted E-Rate funds to fully upgrade the district and to provide 1-to-1 devices to students by 2020.
The Lafayette Parish School System was granted E-Rate funds to fully upgrade the district and to provide 1-to-1 devices to students by 2020.

E-Rate funds kept at least one district connected to the internet through testing—and opened the door for a 1-to-1 initiative rolling out this fall.

The Lafayette Parish School System in Louisiana used to restrict internet access, only granting certain streaming websites to teachers by request. For example, music teachers would be the only ones with access to streaming music—locking out others in the district. And during state testing, schools would disable streaming to ensure exams were not affected.

But thanks to 2015 rule changes in the FCC’s E-Rate program, which gives discounts to schools and libraries for internet upgrades, that will change this fall.

Located an hour from the Gulf of Mexico, Lafayette is a hub for offshore drilling companies. But when oil prices took a dive, the board didn’t believe voters would support an infrastructure tax.

So the district applied for E-Rate funds, which gives discounts on campus infrastructure, such as Wi-Fi connections for classrooms.

With nearly 70 percent of the district’s 31,000 students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch, Lafayette received an 80 percent discount on $3.5 million, the total cost of upgrades. “I would not be able to accomplish this without E-Rate funds,” says LaShona Dickerson, district technology director.

Outfitting individual classrooms with wireless access points can range from $150,000 for an elementary school to $300,000 for a high school. Costs also depend on size and infrastructure.

Across the nation, more than $1 billion in campus wireless access points were sought through the program for the 2016-17 school year.

“It doesn’t matter how fast a connection is to the school’s front door if they can’t bring that high-speed internet all the way to the classroom or the library,” says John Harrington, CEO of Funds For Learning, an E-Rate compliance services firm.

1-to-1, testing needs

In Lafayette, upgrades were necessary for a 1-to-1 initiative that, by 2020, will give Chromebooks and iPads to all students in the district’s 42 schools. “It allows us to create personalized learning opportunities for students,” Dickerson says.

The E-Rate program also paid for additional bandwidth, helping Lafayette prepare for the statewide move to online standardized testing that requires more devices, she says.

“This upgrade is a huge improvement for us,” Dickerson says. “Now we can empower all teachers without putting them through the red tape for permissions.”

E-Rate discounts range from 20 percent to 90 percent, based on the school’s economic need; the average is 74 percent. Applicants typically receive funding as long as proper protocols are followed, such as completing competitive bids for installation or upgrade work, Harrington says.

About 60 percent use consultants to help navigate the process.