During President George W. Bush’s campaign, he promised to increase the flexibility and ease of use of federal funds by consolidating the eRate with nine U.S. Department of Education (ED) technology programs to create a single, $3 billion “Enhancing Education through Technology” fund.

While some educators might welcome such a reduction in bureaucratic red tape, education experts who talked to eSchool News question whether Bush’s plan is feasible, or even desirable, given the difficulty it took to establish the eRate in the first place.

In exchange for creating unprecedented flexibility in using these federal funds, Bush said he would require greater accountability for student performance for investments in education technology, according to his “Enhancing Education through Technology” proposal.

The proposal criticized the Clinton administration for basing success on how many computers were in the schools and how many classrooms were wired, not on educational achievement. In addition, it described the federal effort in education technology as “balkanized, inflexible, and administratively burdensome.”

Currently, the federal government spends approximately $3 billion on education technology through a wide range of technology-specific programs. Among these programs is the $2.25 billion eRate, which is a discount on telecommunications services for eligible schools and libraries administered under the Federal Communication Commission’s Schools and Libraries program.

The federal government also spends more than $800 million on nine programs under Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, administered through EDThese nine Title III programs, which Bush has proposed consolidating with the eRate, include the Technology Literacy Challenge Fund, the Technology Innovation Challenge Grants, Star Schools Program, Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology, Community Technology Centers, and the Telecommunications Demonstration Project for Mathematics.

For school districts or states to receive federal funding for software, teacher training, or internet access, they must apply separately to different departments and programs—and each of these departments and programs have different requirements and evaluation procedures.

The eRate is particularly demanding, since the application and instructions are more than 50 pages long and take hundreds of hours to complete. To make matters worse, the catalog of equipment eligible for eRate discounts is 36 pages. Many schools send their staff to workshops to learn how to fill out these onerous forms, or they hire consultants to help them through the multi-step application process.

During Bush’s transition, he made it clear that education reform is one of his top priorities. On Jan. 6, Bush met with 19 Republican governors at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, to discuss key policy issues.

“I asked the governors to help me work with members on both sides of the aisle to pass an education reform package that will include more flexibility for states,” Bush said of their morning discussion that focused on education. A Bush spokesman told eSchool News that Bush’s intention is to pursue the education technology plan he outlined during his campaign. But educators and policy experts contacted by eSchool News expressed doubt that his plan would be realized.

“It would take some major legislation [to consolidate education technology funding], because a lot of the ed-tech programs have different sources of authority,” said Claudette Tennant, assistant director of the American Library Association’s Office of Government Relations. “I don’t know how you would do a consolidation of the eRate without revoking that authority. I think it would be difficult.”

A ‘major legislative change’

Tennant points out that the eRate is not a grant program like the other education technology funding programs—it’s actually written into the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the National Education Association (NEA), agreed, saying the eRate is “essentially the government saying telecommunication companies have to provide their services to schools at discounted rates.”

Kathleen Fulton, project director for the Congressional Web-based Education Commission, which outlined a seven-step plan in December for using the internet to enhance learning opportunities, said consolidating the eRate with other funding programs “would take a major, major legislative and administrative change.”

She added, “That was a concept that might have sounded good politically, but it would take a substantive change.”

The way the eRate currently is administered through the FCC also protects its funding amount each year, observers said. Shifting the program to the U.S. Department of Education would subject it to the annual appropriations process.

“One of the main goals [in] putting the eRate together is that it be stable and reliable,” Tennant said. “We are in the fourth year [of the program], and that is beginning to happen.”

“The eRate program, we think, is working well,” Packer said. “It’s an innovative way of getting resources to schools without competing for other education funding.” Tampering with the program now would be “a huge mistake, and I don’t think Congress will agree to do that.”

Because of how the election turned out, some educators believe Bush might rethink the proposals he made during his campaign.

“Considering how close the election was and how divided the Congress is, the new administration may decide to present a more reasonable proposal,” said American Federation of Teachers spokesman Greggory King, who added that his organization currently supports the eRate as it is run by the FCC.

“Once [the Bush administration] becomes a little more informed about these programs, they won’t see the value of consolidating all the programs,” Tennant said. “That doesn’t mean they won’t try. That doesn’t mean they won’t examine all their options. … The [eRate] has a lot of support out there. I think it would be a huge mistake [to consolidate it with other funding sources], not to mention extremely difficult.”

Consolidation debate

One thing seems clear: The new president appreciates the role technology can play in school reform. What that will mean for federal funding of technology remains to be seen.

“With Congress being pretty divided and technology having pretty strong advocates, it would be foolhardy to make cuts,” Fulton said—especially since the eRate has had such a visible impact.

Since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act has to be reauthorized this year, Packer said there definitely will be a debate about streamlining and consolidating some of its technology funding programs, but he doesn’t think the debate will include the eRate.

The NEA is opposed to consolidating the educational technology funding programs under the act into a large block grant. “From a funding perspective, even in education, history has shown it’s hard to sustain funding for large block grants,” Packer said.

“If you have a large block grant, there’s no guarantee that money gets spent on technology,” he said. “When they vote for education, [members of] Congress like to know how many more students will be served and how many more teachers will be trained—and that’s hard to prove in a block grant.”

Other ed-tech proposals Bush made during his campaign include:

  • Freeing states and school districts from federal regulations to increase flexibility in using federal funds for such purposes as teacher training, software purchase and development, and system integration.

  • Ensuring that federal funds will continue to be distributed based on need, giving priority to rural schools and those serving high percentages of low-income students.

  • Providing $65 million annually to ED’s Office of Education Research and Improvement, so universities and other research institutions can conduct research on which methods of educational technology improve student achievement.

  • Providing $15 million annually to establish the Education and Technology Clearinghouse to collect and disseminate information on effective education technology programs, best practices, and the latest research to schools and states.

  • Requiring states to establish accountability measures for how educational technology funds improve student achievement, such as assessment. States also would be rewarded with additional federal funds for showing student improvement on an annual exam for students in grades four and eight, while states that decline would lose a portion of their federal funding.

Links:

White House
http://www.whitehouse.gov

Bush-Cheney campaign site
http://www.georgewbush.com

American Library Association
http://www.ala.org

Web-based Education Commission
http://www.webcommission.org

National EducatAssociation
http://www.nea.org

American Federation of Teachers
http://www.aft.org