Advocates Eye Bush's Education Technology Vision
At a black-tie inaugural gala held here last month—one of many celebrations of George W. Bush's ascension to the presidency—school technology advocates in tuxedos and elegant gowns listened intently as Neil Bush, one of the president's younger brothers, gave a ringing endorsement of the role of technology in education.
But even the words of such a close family member—who is the chairman and chief executive officer of Ignite! Inc., a Web-based education company in Austin, Texas—did not dispel the worries many technology boosters at the party, as well as others not in attendance, have about the new administration.
"We're basically worried about block grants," said one veteran technology policy expert from California who was among the revelers. He argued that such grants in education technology could end up being a "lump and dump strategy" that would result in lower federal spending for such programs.
Others are worried specifically that the new administration will seek to combine the federal E- rate discounts for telecommunications for schools and libraries with other school technology funding, subjecting the program to the budget whims of Congress.
In President Bush's wide-ranging set of proposals for education, released Jan. 16, a two-page section about education technology suggests more questions than answers about the administration's education technology agenda, groups involved in the issue say.
"The devil is in the details," said Keith Krueger, the executive director of the Consortium for School Networking, or COSN, an education technology advocacy group in Washington.
Bush, Clinton Compared
Even as they await those details, some Washington insiders and education technology advocates are predicting that the new administration's approach to education technology is likely to be different from that of the previous administration.
The school technology programs that were developed on President Clinton's watch were generous but prescriptive, funneling money to needs such as teacher training and classroom telecommunications links.
President Bush's proposals appear to be a bit different. Although they cover only two pages of his 28-page education proposal, which has not yet been been presented as fully developed legislation, they follow the general pattern of reducing bureaucratic red tape, distributing education funds in block grants administered with considerable flexibility by the states, and holding recipients accountable according to performance standards set by states. ("Democrats, GOP Agree in Principle on Federal Role," Jan. 31, 2001.)
"The Bush administration wants to consolidate lots of programs and simplify it for school districts, which we think is a good direction," Mr. Krueger of COSN said. "That said, we would not want to lose the emphasis and focus we've had on educational technology over the last decade. We've made a lot of progress, and we'd be concerned" if money was diverted to other priorities.
Contradicting fears that block grants would divert money from education technology, the administration favors having a block grant devoted solely to school technology, according to an education adviser to the Bush administration.
The adviser said the White House considers the education- rate, which provides up to $2.25 billion in telecommunications discounts annually to schools, a useful program. The Bush plan would coordinate the E- rate with other grants and distribute the funds to states and school districts by a formula rather than the current application process. That is not a strategy for cutting the E-rate program as some critics have suggested, he said.
Basically, the adviser said, the president believes technology programs should be rigorously evaluated and show results. "We want to ask these basic questions: Is it a gadget? Is it a fad? Or is it really something that can move the states further toward their learning objectives? And we want to get the states asking those questions."
The president's record in Texas may offer some encouragement for technology advocates.
Mr. Bush was a solid supporter of school technology when he was the governor of the Lone Star State from 1995 until December of last year, said Anita G. Givens, the senior director for educational technology for the Texas Education Agency.
Although the state's plunge into education technology began seven years before he became governor, Ms. Givens said Mr. Bush lobbied to maintain the state's annual allocation of $30 per student for school technology, a funding formula in place since 1992.
And in 1995, Mr. Bush supported the passage of the state's telecommunications-reform bill, which directed money to support the use of advanced telecommunications in public schools and other institutions, said Geoffrey H. Fletcher, a former associate commissioner for technology at the state education agency. Mr. Fletcher is now the executive vice president of the T.H.E. Institute, a technology consulting and training organization in Austin.
That state telecommunications fund, which preceded the federal E-rate program, has provided a total of $300 million to public schools in Texas.
During Mr. Bush's tenure as governor, Texas also began requiring educators to demonstrate proficiency in using technology in order to be certified to teach in the state, according to Ms. Givens.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bush's secretary of education, Rod Paige—a key player in any overhaul of federal education technology programs—has compiled a strong, district-level record of leadership in providing technology to schools. Mr. Paige was the superintendent of the 209,000-student Houston Independent School District, Texas' largest school district, before joining the Bush team.
"He's a very bright and able administrator and excellent educator, and in terms of his approach to technology or support of technology, look at what Houston's done," Mr. Fletcher said.
Mr. Paige had a strong vision of how technology should be used for school administration and classroom learning, said Daryl Ann Borel, the Houston schools' assistant superintendent for technology.
After Mr. Paige became superintendent in 1994, the district built a systemwide fiber-optic computer network that now connects all its buildings, including over 300 schools. Over that system, 50,000 personal computers can communicate with one another, and Internet access is available in 95 percent of the district's classrooms, according to Ms. Borel.
Much of that infrastructure was paid for with E-rate discounts, which over the program's first three years have totaled $52 million, making Houston a major E-rate recipient, according to officials at the Universal Services Administrative Co., which administers the program.
Under Mr. Paige's management, the district was innovative in other ways, too. For example, Ms. Borel said, Houston now offers online courses for middle school students.
And Secretary Paige is no stranger to the power brokers in the educational technology world. Ms. Borel said he served on the corporate board of America Online and on the advisory board of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a philanthropic foundation of the founder of the Microsoft Corp.
In a symbolic sense, Mr. Paige's commitment to technology might be illustrated best by how he uses it himself, Ms. Borel suggests.
"On a scale of 1 to 5 [in technology use] he was a 5," Ms. Borel said. "He had a computer in his private office as well as in his conference area. He used e- mail to communicate with staff, kept his calendar online, was an avid reader and researcher on the Internet."
She said the new secretary of education even carries a wireless Palm personal organizer.
Vol. 20, Issue 22, Page 32