Ed-Tech Advocates Look to Life After Federal Budget Cut
States, districts seek other other ways to fund tech programs, especially for professional development
On a trip to Washington this month to advocate for the federal Enhancing Education Through Technology program and testify at a Capitol Hill hearing, Terra Graves kept hearing the same responses.
“They were really impressed with what was done with the money, and said it was used effectively,” said Ms. Graves, an online professional-development coordinator for the 62,000-student Washoe County school district in and around Reno, Nev. “But they just said there was no money.”
By the time Ms. Graves wrapped up her overtures—which coincided with the release of a report highlighting programs that had benefited from the funding—and headed back west, lawmakers had acted on that assertion and defunded the EETT program.
Congress had already approved and President Barack Obama had signed a bill to finance the federal government through Sept. 30, in the process stripping the remaining $100 million in annual funding from the program and leaving proponents of educational technology to wonder about life after EETT.
While those supporters fought to the end to show the merits of the once-$700 million-a-year program they say was a vital stream of aid for ed-tech professional development—and the U.S. Department of Education’s only program devoted exclusively to technology—they must now figure out how to modernize schools and integrate technology into instruction without it.
They say they will encourage states and districts to try to direct other, broader funding streams toward technology. But even if they succeed in doing that, they point out there will be no way for some ed-tech initiatives—particularly those centered around professional development—to avoid taking a financial hit.
“What they’re likely to see at the local level is a lot less capacity for professional development and tech support,” said Douglas A. Levin, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, or SETDA, based in Glen Burnie, Md. “I think what that means over the next two to three years is there’s going to be a lot of uncertainty in the system as things adjust.”
Officially known as Title II D of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, EETT is divided into need-based formula-funding grants and competitive grants. Recipients of all EETT grants are required to devote at least a quarter of the funding to professional development. In reality, SETDA research has found that about 40 percent of EETT funding nationwide is directed toward such training purposes, according to Mr. Levin.
Other federal programs that could show a potential interest in tech-focused proposals include the competitive Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation initiatives. Introduced as part of the 2009 federal economic-stimulus package (which also included a one-time, $650-million infusion into EETT), the Race to the Top and the so-called i3 program received $700 million and $150 million, respectively, under the recently enacted bill to fund the government through the rest of fiscal year 2011. While many current winners in the two competitions used technology only in the periphery of their applications, or not at all, ed-tech advocates say they hope technology implementation will be among the criteria in deciding future grant winners.
“If the administration is serious about wanting to use technology for an innovation strategy, they have to make real the preferences they give for technology,” said Keith R. Krueger, the chief executive officer of the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN.
The single largest national ed-tech program, the $2.27 billion-a-year E-rate program, which subsidizes technology hardware and service purchases for schools and libraries, is funded by a universal-service fee, paid for by telecommunications companies and their subscribers. The program isn’t part of the general federal budget or the Department of Education’s budget.
While many states and districts continued to push for the embattled EETT program—neither the president’s nor the current House of Representatives’ initial fiscal 2011 budget proposal included funding for the program—they appeared to begin thinking about alternative ways to continue paying for programs that EETT money may have made possible.
For example, while Ms. Graves suspects she will lose her EETT-funded position and have to return to a classroom teaching position, she said her superintendent is searching for ways to keep her position and others like it.
Meanwhile, in Washington state, the ideas from a competitive grant, the EETT-funded Teaching and Learning in the 21st Century program, will be carried into a professional-development program that uses federal Title II A funds in 56 districts where all teachers have reached “highly qualified” status, said Dennis Small, the state’s educational technology director. Title II A funding is to be directed to programs designed to train and retain such “highly qualified” educators, as defined under the 9-year-old No Child Left Behind Act, the current version of the ESEA.
Incorporating technology training into other professional development and using other professional-development aid is “certainly our unhidden agenda across the board,” said Mr. Small. He added that brainstorming on just how to craft such programs and think about how to incorporate technology-focused professional development into the use of other federal funds has been a subject in several recent regional SETDA meetings.
Mr. Krueger said others should follow Mr. Small’s lead in Washington state.
“You’re going to have to think horizontally” about finding money for technology projects, Mr. Krueger said. He suggested that other funding for technology could come from using aid dedicated to traditional resources such as textbooks for digital content instead, and from streamlining current technology spending.
“Do you need to buy all those textbooks, or is there a different way to buy that content?” he said. “Is there a different way to spend your technology money that might be more efficient?”
In the short term, state budget crunches will likely exacerbate the pinch felt by the loss of EETT money.
Karen Cator, the director of the office of educational technology for the Education Department, said the loss of EETT does not signal a lack of commitment by the department to future formula funding for educational technology, even though it appeared there was a significant shift from formula to competitive funding in the recent budget bill.
“Formula programs are essential for making sure high-need students have access to resources, such as technology, that will help them achieve success in school,” Ms. Cator said. “We are working to make sure technology is embedded in all programs.”
Ed-tech experts say it’s unclear, however, what stipulations for technology funding might be included in upcoming efforts to reauthorize the ESEA. Mr. Krueger of CoSN expressed doubt that anyone could know what sort of funding for technology would be authorized under a revised ESEA, whose renewal is several years overdue.
Mr. Levin of SETDA expressed marginal optimism, saying, “We have been and will continue to be in the reauthorization conversation, and will see where that takes us.”
As for Ms. Graves of Nevada’s Washoe County district, she knows her testimony in Washington wasn’t enough to save EETT. But she is cautiously hopeful that federal lawmakers may have been persuaded to consider educational technology funding seriously in any future education budget decisions.
“You hope that you’re making a difference and making an impression, but you just don’t know,” Ms. Graves said. “Sometimes it’s hard to sift out the political rhetoric.”
Vol. 30, Issue 30, Page 14