Special Report
Classroom Technology

New E-Learning Funding Tactics Seen as Necessary

By Michelle R. Davis — August 22, 2011 5 min read

Over the past few years, the 10,500-student Bonneville Joint School District 93 has grown by about 400 students a year, and Superintendent Charles J. Shackett invested heavily in technology to attract new students. The district, based in Idaho Falls, Idaho, built an eCenter, decked out with computers, that allows high school students to take online courses from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. as it fits their schedules. And it created a virtual academy of online courses, in hopes of luring back students who had left the district to be home-schooled.

Both were expensive projects, and Mr. Shackett used money from various sources to make it happen, including a voter-approved bond issue. But he also tapped into the district’s funds from Title I, the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act program that supports interventions for disadvantaged students. The federal aid went particularly to purchase software for the eCenter and for the online curriculum used by the virtual academy.

“We want to be the lead on technology,” Mr. Shackett said, and looking at all the ways to pay for it, including such federal funding streams, is important.

Districts across the country are in the same bind: They want to invest in technology and especially in virtual education programs, but a sour economy means tighter budgets. In addition, federal lawmakers have defunded the Enhancing Education Through Technology, or EETT, program, which once provided $700 million a year in grants to districts for educational technology, but had been whittled to $100 million in annual funding before being scrapped.

In response to those financial challenges, district leaders are looking at more creative financial use of federal programs like Title I, which experts describe as particularly flexible. Other potential federal sources are the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which provides support for special education services, and the ESEA’s Title III, which provides grants to states and districts to help English-language learners gain proficiency in the language and to assist immigrant students’ transition to American schools. But Douglas A. Levin, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, or SETDA, based in Glen Burnie, Md., said tapping into such funds can be “both an opportunity and a challenge” for districts. Strict federal rules exist about how the money can be used, and not all districts or schools will qualify.

Some of the restrictions make it “really difficult to scale innovation across a district,” Mr. Levin said.

Streams of federal dollars like Title I are often the first place to look for funding when dollars are cut elsewhere, said Richard M. Long, the executive director for governmental relations for the Washington-based National Title I Association. But schools and districts must take great care to follow the rules associated with that money, he said.

For example, schools and districts may use Title I money for most educational endeavors designed to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children. However, that money must be targeted specifically at disadvantaged students—and not shared with the general student population—unless 40 percent or more of students at a school qualify as low-income. Title I money can be used schoolwide if a school meets that 40 percent threshold, Mr. Long said. Any program paid for with Title I money that is used to improve instruction must be part of a school plan reviewed by the state, he said.

Restrictions on Funding

Funding under the IDEA has similar restrictions permitting purchases to be used only for special education students. However, when those students are in mainstream classrooms, that technology can be shared with all the students.

Possible Federal Funding Sources

TITLE I OF THE ELEMENTARY AND SECONDARY EDUCATION ACT:
$14.5 billion
Program supports interventions for disadvantaged students

TITLE III OF THE ELEMENTARY AND SECONDARY EDUCATION ACT:
$750 million
Program provides grants to states and districts to help English-language learners gain proficiency in the language and to assist immigrant students’ transition to American schools

INDIVIDUALS WITH DISABILITIES EDUCATION ACT:
$11.5 billion
Program provides financial support for special education services

SOURCE: Education Week

For instance, at the Idaho Virtual Academy, a K-12 charter school with 3,000 students, the head of school, Desiree Laughlin, has used IDEA money to pay for assistive technologies for her special education students, who number about 300.

In particular, she has purchased a speech-to-text software program that allows students with disabilities to access online textbooks and any other school-related content, by having the computer “read” text aloud. The software also works the other way, allowing students to dictate papers and responses to be entered as text. Ms. Laughlin said she has not used that software with other students in the school, though she believes it could aid many students. But her awareness of the software has led to her find low-cost or free programs for some struggling learners not classified as special education students.

“We have a lot of students that just like the auditory support, and it fits their learning style,” she said.

In the 6,800-student K-8 Creighton Elementary School District in Phoenix, district officials have tapped Title I and IDEA funds for technology projects. With 94 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches, educational technology projects paid for with Title I money can reach all students, said Robyn Griffith, a technology trainer in the district.

The district has purchased reading-intervention software for special education students that can be shared with the large ELL population the district serves, since many special education students attend mainstream classes.

“When these students are mainstreamed, the idea that they have a tool and only one or two students in the class can use it is patently ridiculous,” Ms. Griffith said, “particularly with technology.”

She said her district’s ELL funds mostly go to pay for literacy specialists and have not been used much for technology. Instead, the district is seeking out Title I dollars for such projects, since “there’s more of that to go around, and the technology stuff has a tendency to cross student groups, so it’s very universal,” she said.

The state of Arizona has been actively encouraging schools to do just that, said Cathy J. Poplin, the deputy associate superintendent for educational technology for the Arizona Department of Education.

“We’ve really encouraged the blending of money,” as state funding and EETT funding have dwindled, she said. “There’s great opportunity there.”

At the 8,500-student Georgia Cyber Academy, where 60 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, Title I aid is being used a bit differently. The head of school, Matt Arkin, said he most often invests in human capital.

Mr. Arkin has used Title I money to pay for additional staff members to support family engagement—an important investment, in his view, for low-income students whose families may not be familiar with online education and how to support it.

A version of this article appeared in the August 24, 2011 edition of Education Week as New Funding Tactics Seen as Necessary

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