Special Report
Education Funding

Ed. Tech Rides Wave of Stimulus Funding

By Ian Quillen — February 12, 2011 6 min read

From the purchase of laptops to modernization of data systems and the training of teachers, states and districts have funneled a major chunk of their economic-stimulus funding into technology.

Yet the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has not necessarily sealed its legacy as an agent for widespread technology integration across the nation’s schools, education technology advocates say.

Most stimulus-financed technology investments tend to be one-time projects, primarily with upfront costs. Still, the peculiarity of ed-tech funding means that finding the dollars even for the requisite maintenance to assure long-lasting benefits could prove difficult.

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For example, the federal Enhancing Education Through Technology fund, or EETT, received $650 million in stimulus funding. Montana received $3.2 million under the program to revitalize a technology professional-development program.

“It’s a dramatic difference in the program,” said Michael Hall, a unit manager for curriculum and instruction for the Montana education department, who specializes in EETT projects. “When the money came along, we’ve said, ‘Great, we’ve got money to do it in a pretty good-sized approach.’”

But the fiscal 2010 budget for the U.S. Department of Education cut yearly expenditures toward the EETT program to $100 million from $269 million—in part, policymakers argued, because the program got such a big infusion under the stimulus. The program, the only federal kitty directly devoted to education technology, is funded at the $100 million level under a continuing resolution until March, when Congress hopes to hammer out a delayed fiscal 2011 budget. (“Obama’s Budget Would Eliminate EETT,” February 3, 2010.)

Other federal stimulus funds have also driven technology investment, including $250 million for the State Longitudinal Data Systems program, $4 billion in grants under the Race to the Top competition, and $650 million in competitive grants under the Investing in Innovation program.

Managing the Flow

The State Educational Technology Directors Association issued a report last November tracing state spending of EETT stimulus funds, which are being distributed on a competitive basis in some states, and through a combination of competitive applications and need-based formula grants in others. The report praised the innovations that stemmed from stimulus investment, and also called for continued, dedicated investment in the EETT.

“EETT is the primary source for teacher training on how to use technology well, as well as the primary support mechanism for planning and alignment with larger [education reform] efforts,” Douglas A. Levin, the executive director of the Glen Burnie, Md.-based State Educational Technology Directors Association, said in an e-mail. “We’ve seen money spent from other ARRA sources on technology that seems not as well connected or supported. Without question, though, actual ARRA expenditures point to a deep pent-up demand for educational technology across the K-12 system.”

But while many districts have directed stimulus funding toward technology, they may not be in the practice of considering technology costs as operating expenses. That could make those projects easier to cut when states and districts grapple with decreasing revenues, coupled with a loss of federal funds going forward, said Melinda Stanley, a consultant for Kansas’ Technology Rich Classroom Project.

The Kansas project helps grantees use technology tools such as new computers, whiteboards, and social media to redesign instructional methods. It got just under $2 million in EETT stimulus funding.“In any other business, technology is a cost of doing business,” Ms. Stanley said. “But in education, we have tended not to build the leveraging of technology into the ongoing cost of operations.”

Others contend that concern over the future shouldn’t overshadow the fact that the stimulus has brought unprecedented investments, particularly into data systems at the state and local levels.

Paige Kowalski, a senior associate with the Washington-based Data Quality Campaign, which promotes greater use of student data in education, cites the $250 million in stimulus aid directed toward the Strategic Longitudinal Data Campaign grant program and awarded to 20 states.

That money has helped bring the nation closer to having all state data systems capable of tracking a student from prekindergarten through postgraduate studies and into a career, she said. It also has helped make states more willing to invest their own funds in data improvement, she said.

“The bigger issue is some of the political hurdles around using the data,” such as evaluating teacher performance based on student performance, Ms. Kowalski said. “If you can get past the political hurdles, get stakeholders involved, and understand the value behind it, once people get it, you’ll find … resources will follow.”

District, State Investments

Districts are also putting stimulus funds toward local and regional data systems. The 23,000-student Tustin Unified School District, in Orange County, Calif., is using the $250,000 it received as part of $3.4 million in EETT aid to the county to install a new system that will allow immediate input of data from assessments via scanning a digital photograph, said Sharon Cordes, the district’s director of testing and assessment.

Ms. Cordes said the district will have to pay a $3.90 per-student annual licensing fee for the product from Corona, Calif.-based Illuminate Education, but hopes to offset costs by grooming teachers as experts before the system goes live next fall. “We want to build up a great base of people trained at school sites who can provide the first level of service to someone,” she said.

Michigan put $11.6 million, about half its EETT allocation, into setting up nuanced regional systems that can give teachers more specific data than the state system can provide. But a project that needs five years to develop only has funding for three, without additional state and federal money, said Bruce Umpstead, the director of the state’s office of educational technology.

Other technology proponents say stimulus funding should be used to establish best practices, even if it’s unclear what future funding holds now that the stimulus aid is coming to an end.

“It absolutely sets the stage, so that if more funding becomes available, we know exactly where to put it,” said Kristen Duus, the technology director of Oregon’s 40,000-student Salem-Keizer school district. It bought about 700 iPad touch-computing devices for teachers administering elementary reading exams with stimulus funding through the EETT and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act grants. The district also put $270,000 in EETT stimulus funding toward what it calls the Technology Rich Storytelling project in which a total of four teachers at Bush and Richmond Elementary schools were given laptops, smartboards, and other tools to tackle the schools’ literacy struggles.

“Budget times are tight,” Ms. Duus said. “We can’t do it in every class and we can’t do it in every school. But we’re trying to use it as a proving ground as what is the right way to do it.”

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Coverage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is supported in part by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org.
A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2011 edition of Education Week as Educational Technology Rides Stimulus Funding Wave

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