As Congress begins debate on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Act (ESEA), which shapes the federal government’s investment in education, school officials are getting an early glimpse of what might be in store for their technology programs.

Block grants seem like a foregone conclusion, as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle support President George W. Bush’s plan to consolidate funding. Of more concern to educators, however, are proposed accountability measures that would tie federal dollars to proven technology solutions and best practices.

Senate action

The Senate is expected to introduce a bill this week that would request $1 billion for educational technology under a subpart of Title II, called “State and Local Programs for Technology in the Classroom.”

Developed by the Health, Education, and Labor Committee as a compromise between Republican and Democratic leaders, the bill would consolidate funding into a single block grant that states would administer to local school districts on a competitive basis, as Bush advocated in his education plan, “No Child Left Behind.”

Although the money could be spent on a variety of technologies, the Senate bill would attach several stipulations.

For example, states and school districts would have to submit detailed technology plans to be eligible for funding; school districts would have to spend at least 30 percent of their funds on professional development; and districts would have to propose initiatives that have been proven by scientific research to increase student achievement.

Also, school districts would have to evaluate how their instructional technology programs have increased student achievement and submit the results in a yearly progress report. If, after three years, a school district does not show measurable improvements, the district would not receive funding in subsequent years.

In addition, the Senate bill would retain the Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers To Use Technology (PT3) program as a separate subpart of Title II. Under this program, colleges would be eligible for $150 million to pay for programs that prepare preservice teachers to integrate technology into their curriculum.

Finally, the bill would provide $5 million to fund the Eisenhower Clearinghouse for Mathematics and Science Education, which compiles and disseminates information about math, science, and technology programs. It also would direct Education Secretary Rod Paige to write a long-range National Education Technology Plan within 12 months of the bill becoming law.

Overall, education lobbyists and school technology directors contacted by eSchool News said they were satisfied with the committee’s version of the bill.

“We think it’s a reasonable package. We are pleased that [Congress is] not doing anything to the eRate,” said Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the National Education Association.

Bush’s plan originally called for the eRate to be consolidated with other technology programs under ESEA funding, but the administration has backed away from this idea in recent weeks.

Many educators said they liked the fact that the Senate bill reflects the need for national leadership on key ed-tech issues—particularly professional development.

The need for teacher training is real and huge, said Steve Cameron, educational technology director for St. Louis Public Schools. “If you don’t have pilots, don’t waste money on planes,” he said.

Tom Sextro, technology director for the Holton Unified School District in Kansas, agreed: “By emphasizing and making professional development mandatory, the [Senate] ESEA bill is providing a clear vision to administrators about its importance. In too many school districts, professional development isn’t a high enough priority.”

But observers expressed concern about the bill’s accountability measures. Many school leaders pointed out that it’s hard to measure the direct impact of technology on education.

“While numerous studies have correlated student improvement with investments in instructional technology, it is very difficult to tightly connect cause and effect,” said Dick Barkey, executive director of information technology at Adams Twelve Five Star Schools in Colorado.

Instead of eliminating federal funding for technology automatically after three years of disappointing results, perhaps further funding should require additional justification or subject a school to program audits, Barkey said.

Also, since the Senate bill would give local school districts the responsibility of creating their own evaluations, results would vary from region to region, said Leslie Harris, public policy consultant for the International Society for Technology in Education and the Consortium for School Networking.

“If everyone is testing with different measures, it’s hard to tell what is working,” Harris said. “Even under the current [ESEA structure], it’s always been a problem to say what is happening in a particular area.”

House action

In the House of Representatives, lawmakers remain divided on education issues.

House Republicans introduced their version of the ESEA reauthorization act (H.R. 1) on March 22. Called “No Child Left Behind,” the bill more closely mirrors the agenda Bush set out in his education plan of the same name.

“The House bill is much more of a traditional block grant with [fewer] obligations on the part of school districts, except for regular testing,” Harris said.

A subpart of Title V, called “Enhancing Education Through Technology,” aims to help school districts implement technology initiatives that lead to increased student achievement. If the initiatives turn out to be successful after evaluation, they would be replicated.

The Republican version of the House plan asks for $872 million for education technology—the amount at which current Title III technology programs are funded for fiscal year 2001—to be distributed to school districts by states through a formula that targets high-need schools.

Each state would have to submit a technology plan that describes how the money will be spent to improve student achievement and how the state will evaluate results. School districts would have to use at least 20 percent of these funds on research-based professional development.

In contrast to the Republican bill, House Democrats have released their own version, called the “Excellence and Accountability in Education Act” (H.R. 340).

H.R. 340 would revise and consolidate ESEA programs under a subpart of Title III, called “Technology For Education.” The bill would provide $450 million for a national long-range technology plan and activities, $2 billion for state and local technology innovation and learning, and $50 million for a program called Getting Girls Ready for the 21st Century (the “Go Girl Act”) in mathematics, science, technology, and engineering.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who introduced the Democrats’ bill, said in a statement, “Despite our differences on some key issues, I remain optimistic that by building on our area of agreement, we can forge a bipartisan agreement this year.”

Links:

Senate Committee on Health, Education, and Labor
http://www.senate.gov/~labor

House Education and Workforce Committee
http://edworkforce.house.gov

National Education Association
http://www.nea,org

St. Louis Public Schools
http://www.slps.k12.mo.us

Holton Unified School District
http://www.holton.k12.ks.us

Leslie Harris & Associates
http://www.lharris.com