Iowa districts are facing yet another year without significant state funding dedicated for school technology.
The legislature has not promised districts specific aid for technology since 2001, the year state officials say a “budget crisis” hit Iowa. In the five years before that, Iowa had devoted as much as $30 million a year to educational technology.
The continued dearth of state aid is sending school districts to other sources for technology money, says John O’Connell, thestate department of education’s consultant in instructional technology. Many districts, he says, try their luck applying for competitive private grants. Others divert some of their local-option taxes and physical-plant levies to technology. Some districts seek out technology grants derived from riverboat, casino, and other forms of gambling in Iowa.
But for most school systems, federal money provides the engine for moving forward with technology initiatives.
Since 2003, districts have tapped money allocated to Iowa under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Districts must apply for grants that draw on those funds, which will total $12.5 million by the 2005-06 school year. Most of that money pays for teacher training, O’Connell says, with “very little going to equipment purchases.”
Specifically, the federal grants enable teachers to use videoconferencing and Web-based materials to learn how to improve their lessons and teaching strategies in math and reading.
Two new efforts in the state also get support from federal funds. Project Easier, which debuted in fall 2004, is an electronic student database that assigns each student in Iowa an identification number. Using those numbers, districts and colleges anywhere in the state can call up student records and transcripts. It costs about $600,000 a year to operate the database—an expense covered by federal and state aid.
Another new program, Iowa Learning Online, expands the high school curriculum with distance-learning opportunities. Students in grades 9-12 can use the Internet or interactive-video technologies to take foreign-language, history, math, and science courses that might not be available in their regular schools. Since the program’s inception in the summer of 2004, 545 students from 42 districts have enrolled, says Gwen Nagel, its assistant director. Iowa Learning Online operates primarily with federal funds and private grant money.