Presidential hopefuls spar over national ed-tech plans

With the general election still four months away, the two leading candidates for United States president offered the first glimpse of where they stand on issues important to school technology decision makers.

Citing an “achievement gap”—not just a technology gap—in the nation’s schools, Texas Gov. and Republican hopeful George W. Bush on June 19 proposed a $400 million, five-year initiative to reform technology education and increase student performance if elected president.

“Technology alone cannot make children learn,” Bush said in a press release. “Behind every wire and machine must be a teacher and a student who know how to use that technology to help develop a child’s mind, skills, and character.”

Bush’s educational technology plan, which emphasizes flexibility, accountability, and teacher training, drew a response from the camp of Vice President and Democratic contender Al Gore.

“In front of the cameras, Bush talks about getting a qualified teacher behind every computer, but he has no real plan to get the job done,” said Doug Hattaway, national spokesman for the Gore 2000 campaign. “His education plan would eliminate the 100,000 new teachers program and has no serious plan to recruit new teachers.”

The Bush plan

A release from Bush’s campaign office described the current federal investment in educational technology as “balkanized, inflexible, and administratively burdensome.”

If elected, Bush plans to consolidate the Federal Communications Commission’s $2.25 billion eRate program with eight Department of Education (ED) technology programs to create a new Enhancing Education Through Technology Fund.

“Establishing a single technology program would ensure that schools no longer have to submit multiple grant applications and incur the associated administrative burdens to obtain education technology funding,” the release said.

The eight programs, which total $730 million, are the Technology Literacy Challenge Fund, Technology Innovation Challenge Grants, Star Schools, Software Development Program, Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology, Community Technology Centers, Secretary Leadership Fund, and Middle Schools Teacher Training Program.

Bush also promises that states and school districts would be freed from federal regulations that limit how federal funds must be spent. Instead, they would be given flexibility in how they use federal education money.

The Bush initiative also would hold states and school districts accountable for how technology funds actually improve student achievement by requiring them to demonstrate how technology directly affects student performance.

Furthermore, Bush maintains there is no clear evidence whether the federal investment in technology is having an impact on educational achievement, although federal programs have dramatically increased access to computers and the internet in schools.

His plan would provide $65 million for universities and other research facilities to conduct research to find out which uses of technology actually increase student achievement through ED’s Office of Education Research and Improvement.

The plan also would designate $15 million to set up an Education and Technology Clearinghouse to make information about programs, research, and best practices available to educators.

The Bush press release stated, “Unfortunately, there is far too little sharing of information among schools, educators, and research institutions about the most promising uses of technology.”

Gore’s rebuttal

Vice President Al Gore’s presidential campaign argues that Bush’s plan eliminates the 100,000 new teachers program requested by the Clinton Administration and does nothing to ensure a qualified teacher in every classroom.

According to a Gore 2000 campaign statement, Bush’s education plan does not guarantee lower class sizes, nor does it address teacher recruitment for needy schools or low-interest subject areas such as math and science.

“Al Gore’s education plan will not only finish connecting every classroom and library to the internet, but will also recruit one million qualified teachers and raise teacher standards,” Hattaway said.

Gore plans to build on the current administration’s attempts to close the “digital divide,” focusing on what he has identified as the ABCs of the internet: “access, basic skills, and high-quality content.”

He promises to finish connecting every classroom and library to the internet in his first term and to make the internet as common as the telephone, even in rural and low-income areas, using both government resources and the private sector.

His plan also focuses on technology training initiatives, including having every child computer-literate by eighth grade and increasing funding for teacher training.

Gore also promises to make “the best” educational software available to all schools and put more government services online, such as Medicare and Social Security.

Through rewards, bonuses, and professional development, Gore promises to elevate the teaching profession.

He plans to recruit and train one million new teachers, in addition to raising teacher salaries. New teachers would be tested for subject matter knowledge and teaching skills before entering a classroom.

The Gore plan also would identify failing schools and work to turn them around, according to campaign literature.

Reaction to the candidates’ plans

Keith Krueger, executive director of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), said it’s good news that both of the major presidential candidates are saying they believe technology can play an important role in improving education.

“Both candidates are generally saying things that most ed-tech leaders agree with,” Krueger said. “Vice President Gore is stressing the societal value of bridging the digital divide and investing in professional development for technology integration, which CoSN supports. Likewise, Gov. Bush’s theme of investing in more [research and development] and showing how technology can improve achievement is also one that we support.”

But Krueger said he has serious questions about Bush’s proposal to consolidate the eRate under ED’s technology programs.

“While it is a nice soundbite, it isn’t legal under the current funding mechanism and it probably is not desirable,” he said.

One of the strengths of the eRate, Krueger said, is that it is part of the Universal Service Fund, which is not part of the federal budget and therefore doesn’t have to rely on the annual appropriations process.

The eRate’s financing structure “should insulate it from politics and from the uncertainty of an annual appropriations fight. If schools are not able to count on the fund being there each year, it will greatly discourage participation,” he said.

George W. Bush’s official campaign site

Al Gore’s official campaign site

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