Orthodox Jewish Groups Exploit E-Rate Library Subsidy Program

Internet Cafes Get Cash. But What Makes Them Libraries?

Ariel Jankelowitz

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published February 05, 2013, issue of February 08, 2013.
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E-Rate has developed a reputation for waste and abuse since Congress set it up in 1996 to help connect schools and libraries to the Internet. Today, the program is in crisis. Increasing demand has tapped out E-Rate’s funding, leaving it unable to meet broad categories of legitimate request. In 2012, only the most needy schools and libraries were allowed to apply for certain sorts of subsidy. In 2013, even applications from some of the poorest schools and libraries for things like servers may be turned down.

The E-Rate pool is fixed at $2.25 billion a year, so more money allocated to questionable expenditures mean less money for everyone else. Ultra-Orthodox communities, in search of government funding opportunities, have exposed what one library official referred to as a “gap” in E-Rate’s screening process — a gap that could be contributing to the program’s inability to fulfill its basic functions.

What Is a Library?

Identical black coats fill the coat racks at the entrance to 193 Keap Street in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Identical black hats crown the bearded young men from the Satmar Hasidic community filing up the stairs to the crowded hall, where they study Talmud and Gemara.

On the second floor of the Keap Street building is a large room with walls of religious books, and another, smaller one packed with bookshelves. Downstairs there’s a computer room with eight desktops and laptops loaded with a database of Jewish texts.

Does all this amount to a library? Not quite, according to the Metropolitan New York Library Council, known as METRO, New York City’s regional library association. At METRO, however, “not quite” is enough to qualify you for E-Rate. The institution at 193 Keap Street has received $190,000 worth of commitments from E-Rate between 2010 and 2012.

It works like this: E-Rate makes telephone and Internet connectivity cheaper for schools and libraries. An independent not-for-profit called the Universal Service Administrative Company, overseen by the Federal Communications Commission, collects $2 billion a year from telecommunications companies and uses it to partially reimburse schools and libraries for phone and Web access and for some Web-related hardware. Libraries across the country are eligible for E-Rate subsidies. That includes public and some so-called “private” libraries.

What’s a private library? Neither federal officials nor state officials in New York will say.

According to the law that set up E-Rate, a private library is defined as a library eligible for state library funding. And according to New York State, special not-for-profit libraries are eligible for state library funding if they are members of a regional library association. That leaves it up to New York’s network of nine regional reference and research library councils, like METRO and Shaloiko’s Southeastern New York Library Resources Council, to determine whether or not a private library is enough of a library to be eligible for E-Rate.


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