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Stimulus Package Gives Boost to School Technology

By Michelle R. Davis & Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — February 20, 2009 5 min read
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Technology experts are advising school officials to look closely at the new federal economic-stimulus package for indirect as well as direct sources of aid for technology projects.

The $787 billion stimulus bill, signed into law last week, includes $650 million for an existing educational technology program and opens additional opportunities to find money for such purposes as improved broadband access for rural schools and enhanced data-management systems.

Advocates for school technology were disappointed that funding for the federal Enhancing Education Through Technology program was downsized by more than a third in the final bill from a proposed $1 billion. But they noted that the measure contains several other pots of money slated for technology, along with other money—though not earmarked for education technology—that might help meet technology goals.

“If you think this is the time to get ahead of the curve and to show education technology can be creative, then there are opportunities” in the stimulus package, said Keith R. Krueger, the chief executive officer of the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking. “If we don’t do this, then shame on us, and we’re going to get rolled over.”

Data Systems

The $650 million in the Enhancing Education Through Technology fund will be added to the program’s current $267 million budget for fiscal 2008 and will be spread over two years. A minimum of 25 percent of that money must be spent on professional development; the rest may be spent on the program’s goals of improving K-12 student achievement through technology.

See Also

For more stories on education technology, see Digital Directions.

The program had been slated for elimination by the Bush administration, and its funding was progressively cut over the last eight years. The stimulus money brings the program’s funding close to what it was when President George W. Bush came into office in 2001.

“We’re seeing a significant group of representatives and senators who feel that the current pattern of decline [of the fund] is OK, and it’s not something they’re willing to invest in,” said Donald G. Knezek, the CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, based in Washington. “It bothers me that we’re going to continue to have underfunded classrooms trying to provide a 21st-century education.”

Even so, technology experts said, there are other places for educators to look for technology money in the massive bill, known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“We’re working on how to maximize the potential of this funding,” said Mary Ann Wolf, the executive director of the Glen Burnie, Md.-based State Education Technology Directors Association. The money doled out for education technology in the stimulus plan highlights a “systemic approach to tools, resources, curriculum software, and professional development.”

Congress also provided $250 million for the existing statewide longitudinal data systems program, for the development of these state data management and warehousing systems. The goal is to allow states and school districts to be able to crunch accurate student data and use that information for decisionmaking, said Mark Schneiderman, the director of education policy for the Software & Information Industry Association, a Washington trade group.

Title I and IDEA Aid

Although those are the two most obvious sources of aid for educational technology, Mr. Krueger said administrators should not overlook other provisions of the stimulus package with potential benefits for technology.

For instance, he pointed out that the Title I program for disadvantaged students received $13 billion under the measure, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act received $12.2 billion to be spread over two years. Both those programs have important technological components for tools such as databases and learning software.

“In special education, there are assistive technologies; most [individualized education programs] are now managed electronically; and there is instructional software designed for students with learning and physical disabilities as well,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “Under Title I, you’ve got other types of instructional software and computer-based formative assessments.”

In addition, the legislation contains $53.6 billion for a state fiscal-stabilization fund. Once that money gets to the local level, Mr. Schneiderman said, it can be used for most educational purposes authorized under federal law, including technology. Much of the money in that fund is likely to go toward averting staff layoffs and programmatic cutbacks, but some could be used for school modernization or other technology purposes.

At the same time, money to prevent layoffs and for professional development could actually make a difference in how well technology works in districts, said Bailey F. Mitchell, the chief of technology and information for the 32,000-student Forsyth County, Ga., schools. In his district, technology-support jobs are being threatened by local budget cuts, he said, and funding for professional development to help teachers use technology to transform instruction is also in question.

“We’re a little worried about those support structures around technology,” Mr. Mitchell said. “If we are getting money for new equipment, I wouldn’t say we would be unappreciative, but we would be scratching our heads as to the appropriate response on the support side.”

Innovation Dollars

Included in the $53.6 billion for a stabilization fund is a $5 billion incentive-grant fund under the purview of the U.S. secretary of education to promote innovation and change.

“There’s a chance for it to go to ed-tech leadership, but it can also be used to ensure that teachers have basic digital skills,” Mr. Knezek said of the incentive-grant money.

Besides the Education Department’s portion of the stimulus package, programs under other agencies could also provide aid for educational technology.

The National Science Foundation, for instance, received $100 million for its education and human-resources foundation, which could be used for instructional technologies developed to aid science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, initiatives. And two separate programs, one under the U.S. Department of Agriculture and one under the U.S. Department of Commerce, received $7.2 billion in funds to expand telecommunications access in rural areas.

Chuck Ehler, the superintendent of the 675-student Rushford-Peterson schools in rural Minnesota, said he was “anxious to get information about how this is going to impact us. Any dollars that can be forthcoming are going to be well received.”

Mr. Ehler hopes the money will help his district maintain some of its current technology programs, but also go toward the purchase of interactive whiteboards, for elementary classrooms, and the expansion of online offerings for students.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 25, 2009 edition of Education Week as Stimulus Package Gives Boost to School Technology

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