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By Adam Petrovsky, GovEd Practice Leader, Logicalis US

“Digital learning” has been the buzz among K12 educators and technologists for some time now – and with good reason. A true digital learning environment offers each student a more personalized educational experience that traditional classroom learning simply isn’t equipped to provide.  As a result, developing a digital learning roadmap is an important goal for every K12 school in America today. But it’s also an expensive proposition, leaving many K12 CIOs, principals and superintendents wondering how they’re going to pay for it.  My best advice? Don’t leave any “free money” on the table.

When I work with K12 clients on their digital learning initiatives, at some point, the discussion always boils down to cost. Of course, we talk about grants and bonds and re-allocating funds within their budget.  But one of the most important – and unfortunately, one of the most overlooked – solutions today is E-rate funding.  Despite what your past experiences may have been, “free” money is readily available today through E-rate, a 21-year-old program that has been radically modified to give every school a very real opportunity to be awarded the funding they request.

Today, if a K12 school applies – and applies correctly – they are virtually guaranteed to get the money. Given the changes that were made to the program in 2015, I would strongly encourage every K12 CIO to re-evaluate any concerns they have about being denied or about the program being too difficult to navigate.  E-rate is complicated, but with the help of an experienced consultant, you have a great likelihood of being approved today.

Prior to 2015, most of the available E-rate funds were spent on “priority one” projects, which included things like voice lines and wide area networks.  This left little money for “priority two” (or “category two”) projects which include Internet-connectivity technologies such as cabling, firewalls, switching and routing, wireless networks and wi-fi capabilities – the kinds of things that actually enable digital learning.

As a result, many of the schools that applied for funding – particularly category two funding – prior to 2015 were quickly denied; only the poorest schools received money at that time. Disappointed in the lack of funds and disillusioned by the complexity of the E-rate application process, many K12 CIOs turned their backs on the program entirely.

In 2015, however, the program underwent very significant changes designed to re-focus E-rate funding on digital learning initiatives and to better distribute E-rate funds among a larger number of K12 schools. Today, while funding is still allocated based on a school’s poverty level, there are now more funds to distribute and nearly every school that submits a correctly completed application will receive some award.

Since the filing window for this year’s E-rate program will close in March, time is of the essence if you want to take advantage of what really does amount to free money for your digital learning initiatives. If it’s been a while since you applied, and if your E-rate program needs to be re-energized, consider taking the following steps.

Align Your Learning and Technology Goals

To be prepared to deliver meaningful digital learning experiences, superintendents and K12 CIOs must first evaluate the district’s personalized learning goals and align them with the technology needed to implement them, looking for ways to leverage available grants, bonds and E-rate funds to offset costs.

Evaluate and Modify Your E-Rate Plan

Since every E-rate dollar is now likely to be funded, there is a compelling reason for K12 CIOs and district superintendents to evaluate and modify their existing E-rate plans. Hiring a consultant may be a strategic move since E-rate is complex and applications must be completed precisely for schools to receive the funding they request.

Expand Your E-Rate Conversations

Now that E-rate has been revised and re-focused on the digital learning end game, it’s important to have conversations with a wide variety of experts – including potential solution provider partners, manufacturers and consultants – on a regular basis. Even if you have a particular partner that you’re loyal to and that you’ve worked with on E-rate for years, don’t be hesitant to hold at least quarterly discussions with others who can give you additional perspectives to consider.

Want to learn more? Explore our GovEd website to see how Logicalis, a top 10 E-rate service provider, helps K12 schools use technology to enhance and protect the learning experience. Find out how the government’s ConnectED program encourages America’s K12 schools to deliver personalized learning as well as what a well-planned program looks like, and examine three important steps that will help you settle the Microsoft vs. Google debate for your school. Ready to talk about E-rate or other K12 technology challenges? Contact us to start a conversation.