For the hundreds of educators, foundation executives, and government officials who gathered in metropolitan Washington, D.C., Nov. 5 and 6 for the eSchool News Strategic Conference on Grants & Funding for School Technology, the subject was money: who controls it, how to get it, and how to use it to turn your old schools into eSchools.

Conference-goers studied these themes at four general and 14 technical sessions. The assembled experts–foundation program officers, heads of government funding agencies, lawmakers, executives of corporate foundations, fund-raising specialists, academics, and educators–agreed that an unprecedented amount of money is available for school technology.

But one after another, the experts sounded a common theme: Before providing funding, most grants makers want to see a detailed, innovative plan for how schools intend to use technology to improve teaching and learning.

“[National funders] believe that if you build it, they won’t necessarily come,” said Donna Rhodes, of the National Partnership for Excellence and Accountability in Teaching, during the opening general session. To be successful, Rhodes said, proposals must offer a blueprint for technology’s use–including a commitment to ongoing training and support once the outside experts leave.

“Technology needs to follow pedagogy,” she said, “not the other way around. The pedagogy must come first.”

Instead of merely doling out money for hardware and software, the experts said, national funders are interested in finding innovative ways to use technology to make a difference, especially in low-income communities. This theme was underscored in the keynote address by Linda Roberts, special technology adviser to the president for the U.S. Department of Education.

“We need to target our resources; we need to constantly assess our efforts,” Roberts told attendees. She cited recent studies of technology’s effectiveness in schools, such as a study by Idaho State University (funded by the Albertson Foundation), which showed greater gains in standardized test scores among students in technology-rich classrooms. But Roberts also called for further studies into how technology can be used most effectively to produce desired results.

State of the eRate

With $1.9 billion in telecommunications discounts waiting to be distributed this year, the eRate is the largest single source of school technology funds. Yet the program has been besieged with controversy in its first year of implementation. Kate Moore, acting chief executive officer of the Schools and Libraries Corp. (SLC), the agency that administers the eRate, updated conference-goers on the program’s status.

“My predecessor, Ira Fishman, foresaw that the potential for waste, fraud, and abuse was the potential Achilles’ heel of the eRate,” Moore said, addressing why the SLC had taken so long to process more than 30,000 applications. “Our philosophy in Year One has been … to work closely with the applicant to make sure there were no mistakes that could keep an application from being processed.”

Moore thanked attendees for their patience, saying, “I know that each and every one of you has put your credibility on the line in your communities.” She encouraged them to apply again next year, promising that the SLC has learned from its mistakes, and she took questions from the audience.

Moore also revealed a change in the funding of internal connections: Funding will be prioritized according to the exact discount percentage of applicants. An applicant who qualifies for a 79-percent discount, for example, will receive a higher priority than one who qualifies for a 78-percent discount, and so on.

Previously, it had been understood that if funding ran out at the 79-percent discount level, all applicants within the 70-to-79-percent funding “band” would receive partial funding for their internal connections.

Following Moore’s session, a workshop with SLC’s Tom Carroll walked applicants through the program’s post-commitment phase.

Federal and corporate funders

In a session titled “Federal Technology Funding Program Update,” educators learned the guidelines and deadlines for grants from the U.S. Department of Education, the Commerce Department, National Science Foundation, and National Endowment of the Humanities. Representatives from the AT&T Foundation, Cisco Systems Foundation, and AOL Foundation also briefed attendees on the “Essential Elements of Corporate Grantsmanship.”

One theme common to both federal and corporate funders, the sessions revealed, is that funders look for projects that are collaborative in nature. Cheryl Garnette, program officer for the U.S. Department of Education’s technology grants, explained that funders like to see that you’ve exhausted your local connections before you come to them for money.

Partnerships also indicate you’re effectively pooling your resources. For example, a school district might partner with a local college to provide professional development for its teachers. The collaboration can help reassure funders that the money they give your school system will be well-spent because your program takes advantage of local resources.

A roundtable discussion with federal and corporate grants makers took aim at what participants called popular misconceptions. One belief the panel members said was untrue: Foundation program officers are largely inaccessible. The funders encouraged grant seekers to call the program officers with their questions–but only after the educators have read the foundation funding guidelines.

“We’re here to help you and we really want to do that,” said Marilyn Reznick, program officer for the AT&T Foundation. “This isn’t meant to be a game where you have to try and guess what we’re looking for. That only wastes your time and ours. So please, if you have any questions at all after reading the guidelines, call us.”

Reznick also urged attendees to consult program guidelines often, because they frequently change.

Empowerment Awards

At a banquet the evening of Nov. 5, eSchool News recognized seven corporate and private foundations for their generous giving in the area of school technology. The eSchool News Empowerment Awards were presented by U.S. Rep. Major Owens, D-N.Y., a long-time advocate of technology legislation and equity in education.

Here are the winners of the 1998 Empowerment Awards:

The AOL Foundation, which supports K-12 projects demonstrating innovative uses of the online medium to enhance student learning through its Interactive Education Initiative.

The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, which recently donated $110 million to Idaho public schools. About $80 million will benefit the schools’ technology programs.

The AT&T Foundation, for its Learning Network program, a five-year, $150 million initiative to spread the effective use of technology in schools. About $50 million is earmarked for technology grants to consortia composed of schools and other institutions.

The Cisco Systems Foundation, which promotes technology use in schools through several initiatives, including Cisco Networking Academies and the Virtual Schoolhouse Grants program.

IBM, for its Reinventing Education program, a $35 million initiative to spur education reform through innovative uses of technology.

The Milken Family Foundation, which recognizes outstanding public school educators each year through its National Educator Awards and funds a number of studies to evaluate effective uses of technology in schools.

The Rhode Island Foundation, which is funding a statewide initiative to train teachers in the use of technology in the classroom.

Funding fundamentals

Al Zeisler, president of the Integrated Technology Education Group, briefed attendees on the relationship between planning and funding school technology projects. Zeisler recommended planning well into the future when budgeting for technology, for example, installing twice as many data ports as you think you’ll need. It’s much cheaper to install them up front than to reopen a wall and install them later, he pointed out.

Other tips that Zeisler offered were to consider leases instead of bond issues, coordinate the installation of technology with new construction as much as possible, and look for innovative sources of funding, such as revenue derived from renting out equipment during the summer.

Rebecca Flowers, senior editor of eSchool News, revealed the keys to researching grant prospects and matching those prospects with grant seekers’ needs. Deborah Ward, grant development specialist for the Berks County, Pa., Intermediate Unit, advised attendees how to craft a winning grant proposal.

The Grants & Funding for School Technology conference was cosponsored by Innovative Communications Inc., developer of the Classroom Resource Management System, with additional support from America Online and the Family Education Corp.

Grants & Funding West

Based on the response to the 1998 conference, said Gregg W. Downey, editor and publisher of eSchool News, the newspaper is organizing a 1999 edition. Grants & Funding for School Technology West will be held in San Diego Calif., on April 29-30, Downey announced.