Revision of rural tech program urged

An Agriculture Department program that provides technology to rural schools and clinics may need to be modified to ensure economically disadvantaged areas can compete for money, lawmakers said today.

The USDA's Distance Learning and Telemedicine program requires applicants to fill out an extensive grant application to receive funding for technology that supports distance learning or telemedicine. The program also requires rural communities to match 15 percent of the funds, which may deter disadvantaged communities from applying.

"Anything made free will be used and abused," said Rep. Charles Stenholm (D-Texas), ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee. "But if we are truly going to leave no child behind, this technology must be available to the children in the schools we are talking about."

Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said he printed out the application for the program and the document was almost an inch thick. He and other lawmakers expressed concern that rural communities without access to grant writers may not be able to complete the application.

Hilda Legg, administrator of the USDA's Rural Utilities Service, the agency that manages the program, said the form is that long to make sure applicants have all the information they need to compete for the $27 million set aside for the program each year, $10 million of which is earmarked for grants.

"We're trying to give them as much guidance as possible because it's a national program," Legg said.

Thomas Dorr, the USDA's undersecretary for rural development, told lawmakers the agency was looking into putting the application online and is seeking ways to simplify it.

The USDA recently reduced the required match from 30 percent to 15 percent, an amount some areas may still struggle to pay. The program supports hardware and software, but the communities are responsible for personnel and technical assistance costs.

"We also believe that absent support for institutional indirect costs, or without higher levels of direct funding of personnel to install equipment, train, and support the hub and remote sites . . . many potential applicants have been discouraged from applying," Karen Rheuban, medical director in the office of telemedicine for the University of Virginia Health System, said in written testimony.

Legg said the monetary commitment from the community was necessary to ensure the success of such a competitive program.

The program, first authorized in the 1990 Farm Bill, is slated to see a cut in funding in fiscal 2004. Lawmakers suggested USDA officials look to other agencies, such as the Education Department and Department of Health and Human Services, to garner funds.

"Given the size of this program, it seems to me the most effective way to use this money is to leverage it, and bring more synergy between this program" and programs in other agencies, said Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio). "I think our individual efforts are likely to not be as successful as they could be."

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