Special Report

State Support Varies Widely

By Rhea R. Borja — April 29, 2005 8 min read
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With many states still tightening their belts because of revenue shortfalls, state funding for K-12 educational technology has been on the downturn. While some states devote considerable aid to school technology, many others rely more on federal money to pay for software, teacher training, and data management.

“Many, many states have faced huge deficits, so there’s been a real scaling back on many education programs,” says Melinda D. George, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, based in Arlington, Va.

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State school technology directors in 44 states and the District of Columbia say inadequate funding or strong competition with other priorities are the biggest challenges they face in trying to finance K-12 technology, according to an Education Week Research Center survey. Of those states, 16 pointed to recent cuts in federal Title II, Part D aid, while 14 states said lack of state funding was a great challenge. Ten states also mentioned a lack of sustained funding for K-12 technology as a main problem.

Another reason for the dip in funding is that technology doesn’t generate the buzz it did in the high-flying tech boom years, suggests Michael Griffith, a senior policy analyst at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

In the 1990s, much national and state attention was focused on equipping schools with computers and wiring them to the Internet. Now, almost all schools are connected to the Internet, and the number of school computers has reached a critical mass, Griffith says. Nationwide, the student-to-computer ratio is 3.8-to-1, according to Market Data Retrieval, a market-research firm in Shelton, Conn.

But, Griffith points out, technology costs have not gone away. In fact, technology has become more embedded in education. States are putting in place data-management and -analysis systems to comply with the accountability requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, for instance.

Money is also needed to update technology infrastructure and upgrade computers, train teachers to use technology in core subjects, and enhance the security of student and district databases, among other priorities, Griffith says.

“Where does the money come from, especially in these bad economic times?” he asks, referring to the pinch many states are still feeling even after the recession earlier in the decade.

The Patchwork Approach

The answer, it seems, lies in a patchwork of state funds, grant programs, public-private partnerships—and, most significantly, federal programs such as the E-rate, which disbursed almost $4.8 billion to companies providing telecommunications services to schools in fiscal 2003 and 2004, and the $496 million in the Title II, Part D Enhancing Education Through Technology program, known as E2T2.

The state funding goes out in several ways, and states often use more than one method.

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One straightforward method is through a line item in the budget. For example, North Dakota provides $1.3 million in its information-technology department’s budget for EduTech, a program that provides training and IT services to educators.

Technology grants are another way. Delaware provides a $1 million block grant to help districts maintain their computers and other technology.

Many states also allow districts to tap other pots of money for technology. In Florida, districts can pay for technology classroom materials through the $15 billion Florida Education Finance Program, the state’s main fund for school operations costs. Of that funding, $50 million is directed specifically to K-12 technology.

The Sunshine State, like other states, also provides a small portion of educational technology funding through lottery proceeds. At least 39 percent of Florida’s lottery revenues are funneled into the Educational Enhancement Trust Fund for public schools.

This school year, Florida public schools received roughly $650 million from that program. Of that amount, however, just $5.6 million went toward educational technology, primarily to help pay for the operation of two K-8 pilot virtual schools, and an Internet-based teacher-training project.

The public-private partnership is another method states use to pay for technology. Hawaii, for example, received a $500,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to launch a project that teaches school administrators how to use hand-held computing devices for administrative and communication tasks.

In Idaho, the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation pledged $35 million to create a state student-information-management system. However, after spending $21 million, the foundation scrapped the program in December 2004 after it found it would cost far more—$180 million—to fully develop such a system.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, the state has worked with Verizon Communications Inc. to generate more than $135 million in telecommunications and online-learning discounts for public schools and libraries since 1997, says Laurence Cocco, the manager of educational technology for the New Jersey education department.

‘We’re Still Recovering’

State educational technology funding can also come from other departments in a state. For the 2003-04 school year, New Jersey lawmakers changed part of the state administrative code to use $6.8 million from the New Jersey Schools Construction Corp., a state agency, to wire and build the technology infrastructures in new and renovated schools.

‘We've had a long history of state funding for educational technology, and we still have some. But a lot of that was eliminated.’

In Virginia, bond sales have generated more than $50 million a year for the past decade or so for schools, and districts have used that money to support their technology plans, says Lan W. Neugent, the state education department’s assistant superintendent for technology and human resources.

In 2000, the state targeted that money to finance the establishment of Virginia’s online-testing infrastructure. Since then, Virginia middle and high school students have taken more than 400,000 of the state’s standardized tests online.

For fiscal 2005, the state earmarked $59.5 million to help its education department support its online technology initiative for Virginia’s Standards of Learning assessment program.

Lawmakers in Virginia also just approved allotting a technology-resource teacher and an information-technology specialist for every 1,000 students, to the tune of $21.8 million.

In Alabama, every public school teacher now receives $181 a year for classroom technology support, an $8.5 million annual state expenditure that lawmakers brought back after cutting it for the 2003-04 school year to much public outcry.

But many other states have no funding specifically for educational technology, or have deeply cut such funding.

In Texas, for example, legislators in 2003 erased a $10 billion deficit out of a $117 billion budget for fiscal years 2004 and 2005 by enacting across-the-board cuts. State aid to public education was spared for the most part, but $33 million budgeted for the state education agency’s technology initiatives for the 2003-05 biennium still disappeared, derailing the Lone Star State’s long-range technology plan, according to state officials.

As a consequence, a pilot program in which teachers used wireless hand-held devices to help improve students’ reading skills and online content to support their biology and social studies learning suffered the budget ax.

State support for technology in Texas’ 20 regional education service centers ended in 2003, and lawmakers took away another $75 million in grants slotted for school telecommunications needs, says Anita G. Givens, the director of educational technology for the Texas Education Agency.

Most telling, her staff shrank from 20 full-time employees to just three, and her department was folded into the curriculum division.

“We’ve had a long history of state funding for educational technology, and we still have some. But a lot of that was eliminated,” Givens says. “We’re still recovering.”

‘Lifeblood of Technology’

Many state educational technology directors say that while they’re grateful for the modest funds their states supply to school technology, they really rely on federal money to shore up their initiatives.

But President Bush has proposed eliminating E2T2, the Enhancing Education Through Technology program, in fiscal 2006. Funding for the program has been whittled down each year since 2002, when it totaled $700.5 million.

Many states rely heavily on federal funds to shore up state-sponsored school technology initiatives.

For the 2004-05 school year, funding for the federal program totaled $496 million, a 28 percent drop from the previous school year, when the program gave almost $692 million to states.

The possible elimination of E2T2 has made many state educational technology directors especially concerned about the status of some of their programs.

For instance, Minnesota relies on its E2T2 funds, which were cut from $6.5 million to $5 million from 2002 to 2004, to pay for the state’s electronic library for public schools, universities, and libraries, and other programs.

“[E2T2] has allowed us to provide the very basic equipment in the classroom, to [provide] staff development for teachers, and also for data-driven decisionmaking, which is strongly linked to No Child Left Behind,” says Mary Mehsikomer, the project planner senior for the Minnesota education department’s library services and school technology division. “To have that funding go away,” she says, “that will have a very strong impact for us.”

California now gives out $15 million to help regional education centers implement technology, a first-time move that has helped shore up K-12 technology, says Barbara Thalacker, the Golden State’s educational technology director. But the state educational technology department receives a far bigger amount—$90 million—of federal E2T2 aid.

Thalacker says she appreciates the state funding. “But the federal funds are more than critical,” she says. “They’re the lifeblood of technology in California.”


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