Education Funding

School Efforts In Technology Stalled by Cuts

By Rhea R. Borja — November 14, 2001 6 min read
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In Georgia, some students may have to research their class projects or surf the Web on aging and inefficient computers.

Elementary and middle school pupils in California probably won’t reap the benefits of a “digital schools” program educators had hoped to see.

And in Florida, state education officials recently shelved a $10 million plan to study how the use of computers and other technologies can improve academic achievement.

As state education departments and local school districts look for ways to cut their spending in the face of an ailing economy, experts in educational technology say such programs appear to be among the first targets of the budget knife. Because big-ticket items such as teacher salaries are generally protected, it’s support systems such as technology that are likely to be disproportionately affected.

“Technology tends to be the new kid on the block,” said Bill Thomas, the director of educational technology for the Southern Regional Education Board, an Atlanta-based group that works to improve education in 16 states. “It’s the ‘last one on, first one off’ [principle]. If it’s a relatively new initiative, it’s likely to be hit by the budget ax.”

In some states, that ax has already fallen. Florida, for one, scrapped the $10 million school technology initiative because the state is facing a $1.3 billion budget deficit.

Georgia’s state board of education has proposed cutting $1 million from a program that was supposed to provide new classroom computers. That suggested cut was prompted by Gov. Roy Barnes’ directive to all state agencies to shave 2.5 percent of the state’s budget.

In Iowa, education officials slashed a major technology education program from $30 million to $10 million. The program would have paid for more computers, software programs, and Internet connections for schools.

More Cuts to Come

The recent cuts may be a foreshadowing of greater cuts in the future, some observers warn. Plans are in the works for legislatures in nearly all states to trim state budgets. (“States’ Wallets Grow Thinner After Sept. 11,” Oct. 31, 2001.)

Officials in California’s department of education, for example, are grimacing over a proposed 15 percent cut for the next fiscal year in the agency’s budget in light of a $14 billion state-budget hole. And Florida educators are nervously awaiting how legislators will address their state’s $1.3 billion shortfall.

Education officials in both states agree that technology will likely be affected, but they aren’t sure by how much. The education departments and other agencies there are in the process of drafting new budget plans, which will then go to the states’ finance departments and legislatures for scrutiny.

As it is, California’s approximately $1 billion “digital high schools” program, which added and upgraded classroom computers in schools, won’t likely be replicated at the elementary and middle school levels as educators had earlier hoped, said Doug Stone, the communications director for the state education department.

“I doubt very much the administration will earmark money for a comprehensive program for that,” he said. “It’s fair to say that technology could be on top of the cutting block. We’re going to have to make some very difficult decisions.”

Iowa, meanwhile, experienced a nearly $160 million revenue shortfall, and every state agency must cut 4.3 percent of its budget. That prospect worries Pamela Adams Pfitzenmaier, the educational communications director at Iowa Public Television, who also advises the state education department on technology issues.

Ms. Pfitzenmaier said she was concerned that many districts would defer long-term technology projects because of uncertainty over how to pay for them.

“In technology, they’re really in a quandary on how to plan for the future,” she said. “And a lot of our school districts have steady or declining enrollment, so they’re not getting new money. That further compounds the issue of funding cuts.”

District-Level Concern

Anxiety over funding has already trickled down to the local level, even though many school systems won’t feel the crunch until the next fiscal year.

Still, some are already steeling themselves for lean times.

In rural Northumberland County, Va., leaders of the 1,400-student school system are still buying new machines and strengthening the district’s network infrastructure through state funding. But they’re worried that state technology aid will dry up, and that they won’t be able to replace old computers or adequately train the county’s 100 teachers in how to use them.

In a district where more than 50 percent of students are poor, that’s a real concern, said Clint Stables, Northumberland County’s assistant superintendent of schools. Many of his students don’t have computers at home.

“If you make technology cuts, that will disproportionately affect poor kids,” he said. “Technology is not a luxury item. It’s a necessary part of every kid’s education if he’s going to compete in the global economy.”

Other districts are also preparing for leaner times.

The Hillsborough County schools in Florida are more technologically advanced than many other school districts in the nation—the 180,000-student system recently signed a five-year contract with Compaq Computer Corp., and its airs a monthly news show on how students are using technology.

But because the state recently dropped the $10 million technology plan, the Tampa-based district may not be able to explore fully how technology can affect academic learning, said Earl Whitlock, the director of technology services for the Hillsborough County schools.

At the same time, the downturn in the economy may mean that Hillsborough officials have to slow down technology projects such as crafting computerized individualized education plans for special education students.

“Our board has been very aggressive in building technology—but even so, when you start taking cuts, it’s going to affect people,” Mr. Whitlock said. “Technology has been integrated into so much of what we do that people don’t see it. It needs to be supported.”

St. Paul, Minn.'s 44,000-student school system is also eyeing future cutbacks.

Voters recently approved a $22 million technology and teaching-time referendum, but a $21 million budget deficit this year means that instead of using the new money to upgrade technology, schools plan to use it to maintain the computers and other equipment they have.

As a consequence, plans to install mobile wireless computer labs and set up a technology academy have been curtailed, and the few computers schools have bought are refurbished machines rather than new ones, said Connie Fiel, St. Paul’s director of educational technology.

“The end result is a more limited access to information,” she said. “We’re using older technology that isn’t as fast or as efficient. It’s also disappointing for teachers who were planning new ways of using the computers with their students, like electronic field trips. So when they didn’t get the technology, all of that had to be put on hold.”

The Beavercreek, Ohio, school district has already had to cut its technology budget from $1.2 million to $844,000 because of a projected deficit in 2004. That means doubling the five-year computer- replacement cycle for some computers, not improving e-mail systems and other technology-based ways of communication between teachers and parents, and not adding needed technical support staff, said Bogi Gudbrandsson, the director of technology for the 6,800-student system.

Mr. Gudbrandsson said someone recently asked him if there was a light at the end of the economic tunnel for educational technology.

“I said to please not ask me again,” he said with a laugh, “because I’d just get depressed.”

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as School Efforts In Technology Stalled by Cuts

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