Expressing fears that federal funding for school technology has grown “bloated” and “duplicative,” congressional Republicans have launched an extensive internal examination of all programs that might be used to provide technology, telecommunications, and training to schools.

Growing concerns in Congress over the amount of federal spending on school technology–particularly the controversial eRate program–have sparked an investigation that Hill staff members say could last a year. When all is said and done, schools might find themselves cut out of some programs, the staff members say, but schools will find it easier to apply for those programs that remain.

On Sept. 16, the House Committee on Education and the Work Force and the Senate Commerce Committee began holding joint hearings to review federal and private initiatives that provide technology, telecommunications, and training to schools. The committees have also requested an extensive report by the General Accounting Office (GAO).

The report, which will be completed in July 1999, is being conducted at the behest of legislators who fear that technology funding programs for education have become bloated and duplicative, said Denzel McGuire, a spokesman for the House Committee on Education and the Work Force.

“For too long Washington has believed that the creation of big, new, federal education programs would fix our nation’s ailing public schools,” said Committee Chair Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa. “If the federal government were the solution to failing schools, the 760 federal education programs now on the books would have fixed them a long time ago.”

Concerns over the amount of money available to schools for their technology programs–and where those moneys come from–has increased in recent months. Not even the GAO, as it acknowledged in a May 7 report, was able to identify what portion of federal funds was actually being spent on technology.

The current probe continues a trend. eSchool News reported last month that Congress narrowly defeated a bill that would have prevented schools and libraries from applying for funds under the Telecommunications Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (TIIAP).

Those in favor of the bill argued that TIIAP funds were intended to support the same kinds of expenses supported by eRate funds — discounts for schools and libraries for their internet connections.

$12 billion in 27 programs

A preliminary report commissioned by the joint committees and released on Sept. 15 shows that about $12 billion is available in school technology funds in fiscal year 1998. The report identifies 27 federal programs, including those in the Department of Education (ED), the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Commerce, that award grants to schools and libraries for telecommunications and information technology.

Of the 27 programs, only four — ED’s Technology Innovation Challenge Grants, Technology Literacy Challenge Fund Grants, Star Schools, and the eRate — specifically target technology funding to schools and libraries. Combined, these programs will yield about $2.5 billion in funds to schools and libraries by the end of 1998.

The remaining $9.5 billion is given through 23 programs that do not specifically target technology for schools or libraries but can be used for this purpose.

Some of these programs, such as Title I and Twenty-first Century Community Learning Center grants from ED, are specifically for schools but not necessarily for technology. Others, such as the Department of Agriculture’s Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grants, support technology initiatives but not specifically schools, although schools are eligible to apply.

Still other grants do not specifically target schools, libraries, or technology, but could be (and have been) used for such purposes. For example, the National Endowment for the Humanities offers Promotion of the Humanities Summer Seminars and Institutions grants to teachers at any grade level for training in humanities-related fields.

Only 1 percent of this program’s annual outlay of $6 million is spent on technology-related training for K-12 teachers, according to one program officer.

Expressing concern that the complexity of government funding programs limits access to only those schools that can afford dedicated grants writers, the House committee spokesman said a reorganization of the way federal grants are administered could result in an easier, more streamlined application process for schools across the board, in all program areas and for all types of technology funding.

The joint committee wants to make sure funding efforts are being coordinated on a national as well as local level, said McGuire.

It’s still too soon to say what the lawmakers will conclude from the GAO report, said McGuire. One possibility is setting up a separate “office of technology.”

Another is consolidating all the funding programs in the Department of Education, he said.

Links:

The U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and the Work Force
http://www.house.gov/eeo/

The U.S. House of Representatives’ Commerce Committee
http://www.house.gov/commerce

The General Accounting Office (GAO)
http://www.gao.gov

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov/

NTIA/TIIAP
http://www.ntia.doc.gov/

U.S. Department of Agriculture
http://www.usda.gov/

National Endowment for the Humanities
http://www.neh.gov/