Washington Update

By Dervarics, Charles | Black Issues in Higher Education, July 8, 1999 | Go to article overview

Washington Update


Dervarics, Charles, Black Issues in Higher Education


Black Caucus Demonstrates Support for FCC's E-Rate Decision

For the Congressional Black Caucus, the chance to influence a major decision on education was too good to pass up.

In what they termed an "unprecedented" visit, 15 caucus members filled a hearing room at the Federal Communications Commission as it voted on future funding for the e-rate, the discounts available to low-income schools, and libraries to encourage access to new technologies and the Internet. Nearly 100 members of Congress also signed a letter to the FCC urging support.

Created in 1996, the e-rate faces strong opposition from conservatives who call it an unfair tax on consumers. Telecommunications companies contribute to the e-rate, but some say the firms simply pass on the costs to the public. But supporters say the program plays a valuable role in linking disadvantaged youth to technology.

"The `E' in the e-rate should stand for equality," says Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the Congressional Black Caucus chairman who was among those in attendance at the FCC hearing.

After debate, FCC commissioners narrowly approved full e-rate funding by a 3-to-2 vote. The decision means the agency will spend $2.25 billion on the program for the 12-month period beginning in July. Last year, under pressure from conservatives, the commissioners cut funding back to about $1.9 billion for an 18-month period.

The vote shows that the FCC "has not been afraid to stand up against the forces that would seek to undermine" the program, Clyburn says.

The caucus was not the only organization pressing its case on the e-rate issue. The day before the FCC vote, the Republican-led Senate Commerce Committee brought all five FCC commissioners to Capitol Hill for a hearing in which many voiced their displeasure with the program.

About 32,000 school districts, schools, and libraries have benefited from the program so far, says FCC Chairman William Kennard, who voted for full funding. The program, he said, plays a major role by "recognizing that access to technology is essential for future jobs and an important step necessary to close the digital divide."

Despite the vote, conservative Republicans have introduced legislation to change the program substantially. Should those bills clear Congress, they likely would face a presidential veto. Education Department officials lauded the FCC vote to fully fund the program.

Under the e-rate, schools and libraries are eligible for telecommunication discounts of 20 percent to 90 percent, depending on poverty rates.

Fear of Prolonged Budget Wrangling Worries Education Advocates

With only three months to go until fiscal year 2000, education advocates again are raising the specter of another budget "train wreck" that could wreak havoc on K-12 and higher education spending.

The chief causes for concern are House Republicans, most of whom are unwilling to increase budget caps imposed two years ago to balance the federal budget. The federal government is now running a surplus, but so far the GOP rank-and-file has resisted suggestions -- even among some in their own leadership -- to rethink the budget caps.

As a result, student aid advocates foresee cuts of more than 10 percent in major education programs, a scenario likely to face veto threats from the White House.

The Republican plan is "simply not realistic," President Bill Clinton says. "It is a blueprint for chaos and we can do better."

The House GOP first recommended $78 billion next year for the budget category with education, employment, and human service programs, a cut of $10 billion from current funding. Republicans recently have softened that stance, saying they would find more money through cuts in other spending categories. However, they reiterated their opposition to lift the overall budget caps, which would have given them a bigger pie to divide among all federal programs. …

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