eSN Special Feature: Schools see mixed results so far from eProcurement

Eighteen months ago, electronic procurement sites for education seemed to be flooding the market, with new players appearing on the scene at a staggering pace.

As the internet economy softens across the board, however, most of the education-focused eProcurement sites are facing leaner times, according to venture capitalists and industry experts. That could leave schools using some of the online purchasing systems in a precarious situation.

In stark contrast to the circumstances a year and a half ago, venture capitalists and other investors today are generally reluctant to commit more money to eProcurement companies. Many eProcurement firms, in turn, have found it hard to cope with the long lead time that can separate start up and profitability in the school field. They also face the challenge of trying to establish a new genre of school service in what one executive called “a historically bad venture market.”

As a result, some companies have simply disappeared from the scene, while others have been forced to adopt a new business model that involves charging school districts for their services.

Early school adopters, meanwhile, have been reporting mixed results. Some say online purchasing has saved them time and money, as promised, but others report that integrating eProcurement systems with their existing back-end business software has been a slow, painful process.

Despite these problems, observers still see a future for eProcurement in education. But players and stakeholders agree: The softening of the internet economy has created a significant shake out. Consolidation is the key word. And the expert consensus is that the several companies that survive will do very well indeed, only those with the most “patient money” will be left standing.

Streamlining the purchasing process

Instead of selling supplies directly, companies such as Simplexis, Epylon, eSchoolMall.com (not affiliated with eSchool News), KawamaCommerce.com, SHOP2gether.com, and DemandStar promised to bring schools and vendors together in a way that would help school officials streamline the traditionally arduous purchasing process.

Between them, they hoped to win at least a small portion of what the market research firm Gartner Group estimated in 1999 was a $115 billion market.

Besides ordering supplies, many of the companies broker sales of services, including landscaping and building maintenance. They generally facilitate ordering without ever taking possession of the goods.

Although electronic procurement is nothing new in the business world, each of these online companies said they had tailored their services to the specific needs of school districts. “We sell everything it takes to run the business of education, from hundreds of gallons of floor wax, to grandstands, to pencils and paper,” said Jared Cameron, vice president for communications at San Francisco-based Simplexis, in an interview last year.

Traditionally, school purchasing officials get on the phone or turn to catalogs to get information on products. Then, they must submit request forms, which are shuffled from department to department, often taking weeks and using up valuable time and money before finally being approved.

By estimates of the U.S. Department of Education, completing a single requisition form costs a school district $125 in labor and paper costs. Nationwide, school officials handle an estimated 25 million purchase orders per year, according to industry sources.

“There’s a lot of paper and a lot of suppliers doing nothing but trying to make a sale,” said Steve George, Epylon’s founder, president, and CEO. “We want to create a paperless solution to allow more time for teaching kids.”

Last year, Ben Holsinger, education product manager at SHOP2gether.com, told eSchool News, “We started doing electronic procurement in the small-business market and had a number of education customers, but the system wasn’t quite right for schools. So we built a new system just for schools, using educators’ input.”

But SHOP2gether is one of companies that didn’t make it through the internet shake-up, changing its business model and downsizing so that the once web-based service now sells procurement software to schools.

At least, that’s according to chief executive Ami Grynberg, who called eSchool News from traveling in Europe. Other company representatives did not answer phone calls or return messages.

Mixed reactions from schools

Educators’ opinions about whether eProcurement has been a success so far are mixed.

eSchoolMall.com customer Brenda Bray, business administrator for Pennsylvania’s Palisades School District, said web-based purchasing offers an advantage over shopping directly through separate vendor catalogs.

“We can cut across several different vendors and compare their products and prices,” she said.

“From the time we’ve started using Epylon, it has made us more efficient,” agreed Mary Simms, director of internal business affairs for the schools of Kern County, Calif. “We are getting better pricing and saving on labor and supplies.”

It used to take Kern County a week or longer to process one order, Simms said, but by purchasing through Epylon, her office can submit orders within a couple of hours.

“Before, you had to start from scratch each time,” she said. “This way, you can just resubmit orders that occur on a regular basis.”

But some educators using the sites have expressed reservations. They caution that integrating the process into their schools has been slow going.

Marylou Atwell is an assistant to the technology director for Interboro School District in Prospect Park, Pa., a district that is using eSchoolMall.com’s product.

“Right now, eSchoolMall is implemented, but it is still in the trial phase,” she said. “There are still some kinks. For instance, it has to interact with our business-end software we use for budgeting.”

According to Atwell, the feedback from purchasing officers has been mixed. “My experience with this is that it takes just as long to place an order online as it does with paper, at least from the school end,” she said, adding there is no way to gauge cost savings yet, since only a portion of the district’s purchasing staff is using the web-based solution.

“In my opinion, it’s a lot of screens to go through, and the forms do not look anything like the forms we have always filled out,” she said. “There is definitely some getting used to this.”

Another issue is the list of vendors these companies supply to their customers.

“School districts always have their ‘tried and trues,'” said Atwell. “They are the companies we’ve been dealing with for years, and they’ll give us discounts.”

Interboro still uses those companies, even though eSchoolMall doesn’t have them on its vendor list. “Sometimes [online procurement] is not worth it, because we still have to fill out paperwork for these types of orders,” Atwell said.

Regardless of early glitches, most educators still see online purchasing as inevitable.

eProcurement “will probably replace older methods to a big extent,” said Simms. Before that happens, though, the volatility of the market space will have to subside.

Venture capital bottoms out

Market analysts and venture capitalists agree that new investment opportunities for online purchasing have all but dried up, and even those companies with sufficient initial funding are having a hard time finding sustained financial backing in the current market.

“Right now, it is not a matter of whether eProcurement will get a toehold, it is really a matter of revenue and business model,” said Lou Pugliese, entrepreneur in residence at Novak Biddle Venture Partners in McLean, Va.

According to Pugliese, the viability of an eProcurement company depends on how fast its business will scale inside of schools.

He thinks schools will adopt more readily once they begin to see a monetary savings, but that might not be before the venture capital runs out.

According to an industry insider who wished to remain anonymous, some of the top names in eProcurement might not have much time left to start turning a profit.

“School districts move slowly, and there’s a lot of inertia in the current purchasing system; the transaction-based model would take years to become profitable,” said this insider.

The “transaction-based” model was one that most online purchasing companies—backed by healthy doses of venture capital—adopted as their means of revenue.

Basically, it meant that schools were allowed to use the service for free, while vendors paid a small transaction fee each time a school customer purchased their products through the eProcurement site. Most online purchasing companies have now abandoned that model as a primary source of income.

“A fundamental problem with companies that try to be the middleman is that competition drives price towards cost. What ends up happening is that the consumer saves money, but the middleman companies don’t make any money,” said Jack Biddle, general partner at Novak Biddle Venture Partners.

“The new strategy is to keep going at a subsistence level and focus on revenue,” agreed the anonymous source. “For example, Simplexis is now charging school districts for implementation and use of the system, which actually makes a lot of sense. Relying solely on transaction fees was a pipe dream.”

“It should be easy for a district to share part of [its] savings with Simplexis,” said Simplexis founder and chief executive Amar Singh, who added that the company now receives revenue from a combination of transaction fees and fees from schools.

‘The customer always pays’

Despite the market turmoil, companies still see the potential for education-focused eProcurement. Peoplesoft, a leading provider of large student information systems, recently announced that it will become involved in online purchasing at the K-12 level.

Peoplesoft’s director of strategy for education, Bert Landau, said the company has no illusions about the profitability of transaction fees.

“We have always said there would [have to] be a license fee,” he said. “All the firms that are going to survive now charge license fees, and those that signed large contracts without license fees are hunting for ways to [make] money.”

According to Landau, charging vendors will only increase the cost to customers anyway, because vendors will turn around and hike prices to account for their extra expenses.

“One way or another, the customer always pays,” said Landau.

Landau said a number of companies have approached Peoplesoft with the hope that it would acquire them and take some of the pressure off the flailing venture market.

“We’ve noticed recently that when we invite one of the [eProcurement companies] in for a ‘show and tell’ of their functionality, during that meeting their first idea is whether or not we’d be interested in buying them or investing in them,” said Landau.

One company reportedly walking a thin line is Simplexis.

“It’s obvious we’re heading into a period of consolidation, with one or two companies left standing at the end,” said the anonymous source. “All the major players are flirting [with potential partners that can help sustain them]. It’s a bit like a high school dance, wondering who’s going to hook up with whom.”

Simplexis was caught in a difficult position because of the declining fortunes of its primary investor, Internet Commerce Group, the source said. ICG started putting pressure on Simplexis to show revenues sooner than planned—or else close up shop.

“From ICG’s point of view, they wanted to cut their losses; Simplexis still has more than $10 million left in the bank that could be returned to investors,” said the source. “For Simplexis, it was like a script change in the middle of a play.”

According to the industry insider, last fall ICG’s representatives on Simplexis’s board of directors reportedly tried to liquidate the company—but they were one vote short.

Company officials have not confirmed this report.

“Right now … we project we’ll start to make money in early 2002,” said Simplexis’s Singh. “There are about a dozen districts using our entire solution.” That figure refers to districts that have implemented the company’s system fully and trained their staff to use it, he said.

The anonymous industry insider tells a different story. “Basically, the management was subjected to a yo-yo effect from investors, who handed them $35 million in March last year and told them to ramp up like crazy,” he said. “Less than six months later, the investors did a one-eighty and told Simplexis management to cut costs, regardless of the consequences.”

The company’s only realistic option was to scale down operations drastically. Indeed, Simplexis, like almost every one of its competitors, began cutting staff. The company, which at one point had more than 100 employees, is now down to about 30.

“The lure of ‘free’ clogged the market for a while. It seems like everyone forgot the lesson we learned from our grandfathers: there is no such thing as a free lunch,” said Peoplsoft’s Landau.

Is the worst over?

To hear company officials speak, you’d never know the market had suffered a decline.

“We’re extremely bullish going into our second quarter,” said Mark Smith, senior vice president for product, marketing, and strategy at eSchoolMall.com. “It was a tough fourth and first quarters, but the fact that we’re still here talking to you best explains it. We’re still here, and we’re healthy.”

Epylon’s Steven George echoes Smith’s sentiments. “The business itself from a micro perspective is booming,” he said, though he acknowledged that “on a macro perspective, [venture capital] and public funding [have] basically come to a stop in almost every industry.”

And though Singh acknowledged significant layoffs at Simplexis, he said, “We still have more than half our initial investment in the bank. There is no other company with that much money in the bank.”

In fact, most company executives seem to believe the worst is over, and the companies that still remain are in it for the long term.

eSchoolMall’s Smith said his company also had to lay off employees, but he said it was not an unhealthy change, as it forced the company to step back and examine its business model.

Layoffs “make us no different from Lucent or General Motors or whomever,” he said, adding that the company has since rehired a significant number of staff. “A lot of the latecomers have already dropped off the radar screen. I think there will be three players at most, all with their own particular niches.”

One of those players is likely to be Epylon.

“We have 256 people today—that’s probably the largest our company has been—but we’re all struggling with a historically difficult financing market,” said Epylon’s George. “It’s happening globally, and we’re not immune to it. In fact, because we’re new, we may be more susceptible.”

KawamaCommerce.com’s partnership with the American Association of School Administrators, which endorses the company to its members, makes the company another candidate for survival, though CEO Jeff Goh said he “would not rule out” acquisition by another company if such a move would be best for its customers.

KawamaCommerce works with educational service agencies that represent several school districts. The company has developed an application for the King County Directors’ Association in Kent, Wash., that enables the group’s 290 school districts to solicit Requests for Proposals electronically to the vendors they already deal with.

“I’ll be honest—it hasn’t been a runaway, but education is never a runaway,” said eSchoolMall’s Smith. That sentiment was echoed across the board.

“The good thing for eProcurement companies is that schools are usually very conservative customers, to the extent that once you get that customer, you can usually hold onto them,” said venture capitalist Biddle. “Conservative customers are harder to get, but they are also harder to lose.”

Winning the market

The question remains: What are the defining factors that will allow companies to win this hotly contested battle for market share and profitability in the K-12 field?

Company executives continue to squabble over the particulars. One sticking point revolves around system architecture.

Both Epylon and Simplexis are run on the backbone of a larger purchasing system that is not education-focused.

According to Steven George, Epylon decided early on to go with software from Ariba. Ariba provides online purchasing power to the business world, where web-based purchasing systems have seen more acceptance.

Simplexis has adopted the Commerce One architecture for its school-based product. “Back in January 2000, we knew there was no sense reinventing the wheel. We took Commerce One’s engine and customized it,” said Singh.

The advantage of using a commercial product is that both Commerce One and Ariba have been functional for some time and have had several revisions and improvements.

“The Commerce One product is very scalable, and all the kinks have been worked out. Everyone knows that it can take seven, eight, or nine versions to get the bugs out,” said Singh.

Simplexis and Epylon have adapted their respective platforms for school use by changing their user interfaces to better meet the needs of school purchasing officials.

eSchoolMall has taken a different approach than its competition by developing its own software.

“The school market channel is not the same as the private sector. You are not going to re-engineer this market channel. Schools are slow adopters, and certain business model assumptions don’t apply here,” said eSchoolMall’s Smith.

The nice thing about owning its own software is the company’s ability to make adjustments to its product, he said. “Simplexis and Epylon use big business software.”

Because eSchoolMall owns its own software and can license it to vendors, the company is able to leverage those licensing fees as an alternative source of income.

“We’ve had an enormous reception to our software, because it was designed for schools,” said Smith. “Our software fees are a major source of revenue.”

But Simplexis’s Singh sees it differently: “If eSchoolMall tells me they spend even close to what Commerce One has spent developing [its] solution, then I’ll switch. But we know they haven’t been able to invest that much.”

According to venture capitalist Lou Pugliese, the winners are going to be the ones who have oriented their architecture to the buying patterns of a particular school district.

“Most vendors have a ‘vanilla’ architecture. They are not education-specific,” he said. “I think eSchoolMall has done the best job in mimicking the strategies of purchasing agents, and that helps the rate of adoption.”

The winners will have the best catalogs, offerings, services, and the best architecture for meeting the needs of schools, Pugliese added. They’ll also be the ones that work very quickly and quietly to accumulate market share.

A new take on the idea

Another company that uses Commerce One’s architecture is AcquireX. But that company puts a completely different spin on the traditional eProcurement business model, which has allowed AcquireX to remain above the struggle for venture capital that has consumed so many competitors.

According to Jack Allewaert, president and CEO, AcquireX is privately funded by Davidson Networks, LLC and is dedicated to building an eProcurement system that will streamline school purchasing systems, in order to make more money for the real purpose of education.

“We are not dependent on [venture capital] to continue our funding,” he said. “The Davidsons are committed to seeing this through until we scale. So that is comforting in light of the financial climate.”

AcquireX considers itself to be an aggregator, or reseller, of educational products. “That’s different from our competitors,” said Allewaert. “They are facilitators. A facilitator charges a fee for introducing the buyer and the seller.”

Instead of facilitating sales, AcquireX actually sells to schools. All financial transactions are run through powerful Oracle software.

“Through the facilitation model, if [educators] don’t like what they receive, they have to go to the vendor,” said Allewaert. Unlike its competition, he said, AcquireX is the first line of defense for customer service issues, encouraging customers to contact it directly for problem solving and trouble-shooting.

“To be successful in the school business, you have to be a patient investor,” said Allewaert. “Our business plan is based on the idea that you have to prove yourself as a company, and you have to make money before you go public.”

But Allewaert acknowledges his company faces the same challenges as all eProcurement companies that are struggling to win acceptance in schools.

“I think one of the biggest challenges we face in this space is that it’s our job to educate the schools and their administration about the benefits and cost savings associated with all these companies,” he said. “School administrators are very cautious buyers. They should be. They have people looking over their shoulders waiting for them to make a mistake at all times.”

Links:

Epylon
http://www.epylon.com

Simplexis
http://www.simplexis.com

eSchoolMall.com
http://www.eschoolmall.com

KawamaCommerce.com
http://www. kawamacommerce.com

Novak Biddle Venture Partners
http://www.novakbiddle.com

Palisades School District
http://www.palisadessd.org

Kern County Superintendent of Schools
http://www.kern.org

Interboro School District
http://www.interboro.k12.pa.us

Peoplesoft
http://www.peoplesoft.com

AcquireX
http://www.acquirex.com

tags

SF passes up $50 million in eRate funds

School officials in San Francisco have decided to reject a federal eRate grant that would have brought $50 million in telecommunications discounts, internet access, and wiring to the cash-strapped district. The decision raises questions about the benefits and restrictions associated with accepting eRate discounts.

According to officials from San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), the decision came when officials could not come up with theapproximately $10 million in required matching funds and discovered that the terms of the program did not fit into the district’s technology plans.

SFUSD applied for the eRate funding last year, before current Superintendent Arlene Ackerman took office. According to Eloise Brooks, Ackerman’s chief of staff, the grant did not look like such a great deal to the new administration.

“Basically, someone outside of the district has decided—in isolation of the school district—that we need something that we do not need,” Brooks said. “We have other needs that we have to address, and we are getting criticized for this. I do not think it’s fair.”

The funding allotted to SFUSD in Year Three of the eRate program would have amounted to about $49,150,000 for internal connections (wiring and routing), $42,380 for internet access (paid to an internet service provider), and $1, 072,000 for telecommunications services (paid to the telephone company), according to a report from the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Services Administrative Company (USAC), the administrator of the eRate.

But in exchange for those services and discounts, the 60,000-student district would have to front some of its own cash, too.

Differing opinions

According to Mel Blackwell, a spokesman for the SLD, the district would have to pay whatever the eRate did not cover, up to 100 percent of the project’s cost.

Since the level of need in the district (determined by the number of children receiving free and reduced-price lunches) dictated that the eRate should fund 83 percent of the project’s cost, the district would have to fund 17 percent of thecost itself, Blackwell explained. That means SFUSD would have to put up about $10 million of its own money.

In a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle, which has been reporting on the district’s financial woes, district officials wrote that “after analysis, it was determined that the $50 million eRate grant would cost the district $18 million.”

Brooks said the discrepancy reflected the additional expenses the district would incur to rewire some schools.

“If we were doing this on our own, we’d put [Category-5] wiring in our elementary schools, not fiber,” she said. “Fiber is very expensive and, frankly, it may not be necessary in our elementary schools. That’s the reason this is a $50 million grant.”

Brooks said that installing fiber-optic cabling would require SFUSD to pull the wiring out of at least 12 schools that already have Cat-5 wiring.

But according to the former district employee who prepared the eRate application, an electrical assessment by the district and by an independent electrical company was conducted before the eRate money was requested.

“That [electrical survey] said all 46 schools in the eRate application met the requirements for basic hookups,” said Tim Tronson, former district consultant for facilities planning.

Tronson left the district after Superintendent Ackerman took office and let his contract lapse.

“I think it is noteworthy that Mr. Tronson was let go due to bad management processes,” said Brooks, who would not specify exactly what those practices were. Instead, she referred to an article in the Chronicle in which district officials indicated Tronson’s department was bloated and financially irresponsible.

That’s just sour grapes, Tronson maintains.

“At this point, I really don’t care if they take the money or not. But what I do care about is that the district is honest about why they are not taking the grant,” he said.

“Basically, one of three things is going on,” he said. “One, either they never looked at the eRate issue until this point; two, they looked at it but did not understand it; or three, they never intended to go through with this.” Tronson believes the third option is closest to the truth.

District officials admit that coming up with the matching money is a major concern for SFUSD.

“This is about fiscal responsibility,” said Brooks, who added there are other pending items that Ackerman feels take precedence over technology and wiring improvements.

But Tronson does not believe SFUSD can’t come up with the money, explaining that when Ackerman took over from interim Superintendent Linda Davis, the new school chief gave all teachers a 14 percent pay raise, an expense of about $30 million.

“Both vendors—NEC and Inter-Tel—have said they would finance this [project] for seven years,” he added. “There are a number of revenue sources they could use to pay for this without taking on debt.”

Not ‘part of the plan’

But the money is not the only problem, district officials explain.

In the letter to the Chronicle, Jackie Wright, the district’s director of public information, wrote that “the grant was not part of the district’s education plan” and stated: “The type of unilateral decision that prompted the grant is indicative of past practices that led to the district’s current financial problems.”

The district maintains that the information technology and instruction departments were left out of the eRate application process, an allegation Tronson hotly contests.

“There were several meetings with the IT department. All the data on the application came from those meetings,” he said. “The IT participation is documented. To say they don’t want to take the grant because it was not filed properly is bull.”

Tronson and SFUSD officials also differ on whether computers—which are not eligible for funding unless they are servers—would be a part of the eRate project.

In her letter to the Chronicle, Wright stated that the project “would not put computers in the classroom, as [the Chronicle had] erroneously indicated.”

But according to Tronson, before NEC’s bid for the grant was approved, the company had offered to throw in 100 computers to each of the 46 schools sites, including two years of maintenance and training for teachers.

“I’ve not seen that in writing,” said Brooks. “There is no legal document that would let us hold them to this, and that means … we’d have to [supply the hardware] ourselves.”

NEC declined to comment about its relationship with SFUSD.

“This is a case of the tail wagging the dog,” Brooks said. “Why should we be forced into doing something that is not in the plan?”

District officials have not yet discussed the possibility of passing a bond issue that would help SFUSD fund its portion of the $50 million, said Brooks.

SFUSD officials hope to resolve the issue in a way that allows them to make use of at least part of the funding. According to Brooks, the district is checking with the SLD to see how the proposal could be amended to meet their needs.

“We have people in Washington working on that right now,” said Brooks.

In fact, according to the administrators of the eRate, it is not unusual for a district to accept only a portion of the funds it is eligible for.

“There is a very good chance we can change the terms around to better meet the needs of SFUSD,” said the SLD’s Blackwell. “We really want to them to come out of this with what they want.”

Links:

San Francisco Unified School District
http://www.sfusd.k12.ca.us

Schools and Libraries Division of USAC
http://www.sl.universalservice.org

NEC Global
http://www.nec-global.com

tags

Free technical assistance for educators and school technology coordina

Since 1995, privately-funded Tech Corps has provided no-cost assistance in maintaining their technology systems to schools connected to the internet. The Tech4schools Online Mentoring Program provides online, volunteer technical assistance to educators and school technology coordinators. Typically, a team of as many as 10 volunteers (each with a specialty, such as software or networking) will support a single technology coordinator, who may represent an individual school or an entire district. Tech Corps volunteers are available in 43 states.

tags

Hundreds of thousands of surplus computers for schools

Through its Computers for Learning program, the federal government has placed hundreds of thousands of surplus computers in schools across the country on a needs-first basis. Schools register and request equipment on the Computers for Learning web site, and federal agencies match their surplus equipment to schools with those needs. Most, but not all, of the available computers are Windows-based PCs rather than computers made by Apple. Most of the donated machines are older models, but as the government continues to upgrade its computer systems, the number of surplus Pentium computers will sharply increase. Computers and equipment are not refurbished by the government before being shipped to schools, nor are they covered by warranty.

tags

Filtering company Dotsafe becomes another dot-com victim

Phoenix-based Dotsafe Inc.—the company that reportedly offered its first 2 million customers free internet filtering—has quietly gone out of business, leaving many school districts scrambling to find a new filtering service.

“Dotsafe is no longer in business, and the assets and the contracts … that Dotsafe was performing in the internet filtering market are currently being distributed,” said Neil Kohler, the company’s former chief executive, in an interview April 20.

“The company ran into the obstacles that a lot of dot-coms have had,” he said. “The board of directors elected to cease operations in the middle of March, rather than put any more money into the organization.”

Kohler said he is not involved in the company’s wind-down, since he left Dotsafe March 1 to take another job. He said he was told that Dotsafe had advised its customers of the company’s demise via eMail March 30, although school districts contacted by eSchool News for this story said Dotsafe had not notified them.

Charles Molé, district network manager at Parsippany-Troy Hills Township School District in New Jersey, said he wasn’t aware that Dotsafe had gone out of business until hearing a telephone message from eSchool News April 20.

“We have a heavy commitment into Dotsafe. I put in several calls to them over the past [few] days and never heard from them,” Molé said. “We’ve had problems the past few days because we can’t connect to their server.”

Donna Wildman, acting technology coordinator at West Jefferson Hills School District in Pennsylvania, said a sales representative from another company informed her that Dotsafe was no longer in business, although her district also had unexplained problems connecting to Dotsafe’s server in the past week.

“I happened to be on vacation when it happened, so nobody could access the internet while I was gone. It was a minor inconvenience,” Wildman said.

“I tried contacting the company several times. They don’t have a message saying they went out of business,” she added. “I left several messages and, of course, no one called back.”

Steve Bauer, technology director for the Cupertino Union School District in California, said his district had just selected Dotsafe as its internet filtering provider. Bauer was in the process of setting it up around the end of March when he received a call from the company notifying the district that it would have to pay for the service.

“They said that, although they had a tentative agreement to [provide free filtering], they wouldn’t be able to offer free filtering because of their bottom line,” Bauer said. “I knew they were in trouble, [but] I didn’t know they were in that much trouble.”

Kohler defended Dotsafe’s business model, saying the shut-down was a result of venture capitalists choosing not to invest in dot-coms any longer. “That [business] model was ingenious when the internet model was working,” he said.

He added that it was unfortunate that the internet economy collapsed just when Dotsafe was building momentum. In February, Dotsafe announced that after securing 2 million customers, it would begin charging all new customers who signed up for the service after Feb 1.

In a company statement dated Feb. 1, Kohler said, “Our free offer has succeeded beyond our dreams. We will now begin offering the same world-class solution for a fee, at steep discounts, so we can continue to effectively serve the school community.”

Kohler admitted that Dotsafe might have waited too long before it started charging for the service.

“We were started back in the day when people said they would pay for advertising space,” Kohler said. “Even though we didn’t advertise to students, there was a way to access sponsorships.”

Many school customers who relied on Dotsafe’s free service might experience money problems, because now they’ll most likely have to pay for internet filtering, which is required by the Children’s Internet Protection Act beginning this fall.

“Our budget was already voted on, on the 17th [of April], and there were no funds appropriated for filtering,” Molé said. “Based on the size of our district—we have 14 schools—it will cost between $30,000 and $50,000 to get filtering software.”

He added, “The first thing I have to do is break it to my superintendent and devise some sort of plan.” Molé said he would start looking right away for another company that can provide filtering.

“If we have not got [another filtering solution] by September, we may lose [eRate funds], because they require us to have filtering,” Molé said. “We are stuck here in a situation that is going to be hard to get out of.”

Kohler said many other companies have expressed interest in taking on Dotsafe’s contracts.

“If a company [chooses] to acquire Dotsafe’s assets and contracts, they would have the opportunity to approach Dotsafe’s customers,” Kohler said. But, because schools need filters right away, he acknowledged many schools can’t wait for that to happen.

Links:

Parsippany-Troy Hills Township School District
http://www.pthsd.k12.nj.us

West Jefferson Hills School District
http://www.wjhsd.k12.pa.us

Cupertino Union School District
http://www.cupertino.k12.ca.us

tags

Round One to education in fight to keep ITFS spectrum

In a preliminary victory for educators, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has released a report affirming its strong support for distance learning using the Instructional Television Fixed Service (ITFS). That report has brought relief to hundreds of schools across the country that make use of that broadband service.

The report, titled “Spectrum Study of the 2500 to 2690 MHz Band: The Potential for Accommodating Third-Generation Mobile Systems,” reviews the feasibility of altering the purpose of the 2.5 GHz spectrum, which currently supports ITFS, to accommodate commercial wireless messaging services and other so-called “third-generation,” or 3G, technologies.

As the demand for mobile data services—such as wireless internet access, eMail, and short messaging services—continues to grow, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) estimates that 160 megahertz (MHz) of additional spectrum will be needed to meet the projected requirements of these 3G technologies by 2010.

To accommodate this demand, the FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rule Making on Jan. 5, seeking comment on several possible solutions. The notice proposed using any, or all, of five frequency bands currently used for other applications to support emerging 3G technologies.

One of the frequency bands in question, 2500 MHz to 2690 MHz, is shared by ITFS, a distance-learning technology that has provided educational services to students and teachers since the 1960s, and the Multichannel Multipoint Distribution Service (MMDS), a fixed wireless broadband service provided by a commercial entity.

“There are between 2,000 and 3,000 [ITFS] license-holders, and of those, about 750 are K-12 schools,” said Mary Conk, a legislative analyst for the American Association of School Administrators (AASA). But, even ITFS license-holders that aren’t K-12 schools provide distance-learning applications that reach thousands of communities.

The FCC has assured educators they would not lose access to this spectrum entirely. Instead, some school districts that hold licenses in the portion of the spectrum now reserved for ITFS could be moved to another band to make room for commercial 3G technologies.

But, if that were to happen, some communities could lose their educational services altogether, while others could face new equipment costs, disruption or curtailment of service, lower quality of service, or signal interference, according to Wireless Education Broadband (WEB) NOW, a campaign to preserve the portion of the wireless spectrum devoted to education.

The FCC’s report agrees with that assertion. The report states that both urban and rural communities and school districts of all sizes use the ITFS system. Any educational entity participating in this system would be adversely affected by changes made by changing the purpose of its spectrum, the report says.

According to the report, adding 3G systems to the education spectrum could cause extensive interference along airwaves in the most populated areas of the country. Also, the addition of the wireless systems would raise significant technical and economic difficulties for current licensees.

The price tag to relocate current ITFS license holders to make room for 3G technologies would be prohibitive, reaching upwards of $19 billion over a 10-year period, the study concludes.

Educators currently using ITFS were encouraged by the FCC’s report.

“It is absolutely critical to our mission that we retain this spectrum as we move into the digital age,” said Carol Woolbright, network director for Greenbush Interactive Distance Learning Network, which delivers distance education to 1,305 students in Eastern Kansas. “I’d urge the FCC strongly to safeguard it into the future for education.”

AASA officials said the report is a step in the right direction, but the fight isn’t over yet.

“The FCC report was a studied, analytical view of this issue that put us in a good position, but it did not make any determinations about the future of ITFS,” said Bruce Hunter, director of public policy at AASA.

AASA’s opponents—primarily telecommunications companies seeking additional spectrum—struck back right away, but Hunter said that’s to be expected.

“They just reiterated that they don’t think we are using our [airwave] space well. But it’s not fair to blast schools for not using broadband across the board yet. We are just getting to the digital age, and we want to plan for the future,” said Hunter. “We have long-term plans for distance learning, and we can’t move ahead into the future if we continue to have our access threatened,” said Ray Cruz, instructional television specialist for Miami-Dade Public Schools.

Miami-Dade uses its spectrum to broadcast two cable channels serving about 340 schools, more than 360,000 K-12 students, and more than 140,000 adult learners daily, with 10,000 hours of programming per year.

The FCC plans to make a decision by July and would auction off licenses for the bands in 2002. Other frequencies under consideration for reallocation include airwaves currently used by the Department of Defense.

Links:

Federal Communications Commission
http://www.fcc.gov

American Association of School Administrators
http://www.aasa.org

WEB NOW
http://www.itfs.org/webnow Greenbush Interactive Distance Learning Network
http://www.greenbush.org

Miami-Dade Public Schools
http://dcps.dade.k12.fl.us

tags

Schools use software to track special education services

Hoping to improve special-education services for some 18,000 students, the Detroit Public Schools are turning to technology to manage the mountains of paperwork associated with federal and state requirements.

District officials have signed a 3-year, $6.3 million contract with Maryland-based 4GL School Solutions to supply special education management software to the city’s 269 schools. Officials said the software will more than pay for itself, as they expect to recover an additional $12 million to $15 million in federal funding per year with improved record-keeping.

“The bottom line is that tracking data for special education has become so complicated that it is beyond the capability of the average staff person to deal with it using the old methods,” said 4GL President and Chief Executive Officer Clark Easter.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 1998-99 about one out of every eight students had an individualized education program. Federal and state law dictate that numerous data must be tracked for each such student.

Special-education information is the most complex data that school districts must deal with, Easter said, and student records frequently are managed on paper or in smaller databases that don’t “speak” to one another.

The numerous federal and state deadlines educators have to meet are what make this task so challenging.

“Typically, when a child is first identified as needing special services, there are timelines at the state, local, and district levels,” said Easter.

“For example … when you suspect a certain disability in a child, depending upon the state you are in, you might have either 60 or 70 days to order the assessment for the child, get parent permission to do the assessment, and do the actual testing. Then, during that time, the staff needs to write up the results, and after all of that, you still have to give the parents 10 days prior notice before holding a meeting to discuss the school’s recommendations.”

4GL’s Special Education Tracking System (SETS) is designed to permit a school district to base its services on accurate and complete data.

SETS incorporates a database of all special education students to give special education teachers and counselors instant access to complete, updated, individualized information about students.

That is vitally important to schools, which routinely face legal action in the form of “consent decrees,” or class-action lawsuits that occur when a district falls behind on tracking and providing mandated special education services.

According to 4GL’s estimates, the average district is behind on about 20 percent of cases, and litigation is a serious threat to districts already strapped for funds.

“For instance, if a parent finds out that a child should have had speech [classes] for a year and has not received [them], that parent can bring legal action against the district,” said Easter.

The Detroit school system is not currently involved in a consent decree, but Thomas Diggs, chief information officer for the district, acknowledged that it has had some serious problems in the past.

Special-education data are “so complex and so hard to keep track of. There are lots of federal and state regulations to comply with, and it requires an inordinate amount of paperwork,” Diggs said.

Easter agreed there is a breakdown in special education record-keeping because of the mountains of associated paperwork, with anywhere from 30 to 50 pages of forms required for each student. “The staff gets totally overwhelmed,” he said.

The paperwork problem is addressed by putting all forms online, said Easter. The electronic version looks exactly like the paper version, but includes a compliance-checking feature that alerts staff to deadlines and automatically formats documents.

Diggs hopes that better data management will allow the Detroit schools to recoup all of the monies they should be getting from the federal government.

“This way, we’ll be able to more accurately report exactly what our true needs are,” Diggs said. “Consequently, our special education students will be the [beneficiaries].” 4GL estimates it will take Detroit from $3 million in yearly Medicaid recovery to between $15 million and $18 million.

Competitors

4GL is not the only company that provides a solution for managing special-education information.

In fact, providers of larger student information systems—such as Administrative Assistants Ltd., Chancery Software, and NCS Pearson—often include a special-education tracking module as part of their larger offering.

But, according to Easter, 4GL has an advantage over larger systems that address more than just special education.

“We were developed to get Baltimore City out of a consent decree, and we succeeded in doing that last year,” said Easter. “We have a deep understanding of both special education and education law.”

Maryanne Ralls, Baltimore City’s director of SETS support, said the district isn’t completely out of its consent decree yet, but “in three years we’ll be totally out of it. … We are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”

In Baltimore, SETS is accessed daily by more than 680 users to create timelines for 16,700 special-education students. Principals can use the system to pull up a set of reports that show, at a glance, exactly where their school stands in terms of regulatory compliance, and district officials can pull up reports to show how area schools are in compliance.

The results have been compelling. “We took [Baltimore City’s] data accuracy from 50 percent to more than 96 percent,” said 4GL’s Easter.

According to Ralls, the district’s Medicaid recovery has skyrocketed from $2.5 million to $25 million, and compliance violations were cut by up to 90 percent in many buildings. SETS also found more than 1,000 children for the state child count whom the district had been unable to track previously, a finding worth more than $450,000 per year in funding.

And that’s not according to 4GL, but the results of a state-conducted audit of services at the district, Ralls said.

Detroit school officials are excited about SETS. “We have been up and down this trail on a number of occasions,” said Diggs. “Our employees are enthusiastic about the demo and are working with us to bring about the implementation.”

Because SETS is a thin-client solution, it can be run from a central server using the same hardware the school already has, Diggs said.

4GL is hoping to bring online teacher training to Detroit, in the form of an interactive CD-ROM that would provide a link to the company’s web site.

“We hope to have a pilot up in about 10 months, and have [the entire system] running in about 18 months,” Diggs said.

Links:

Detroit Public Schools
http://www.detroit.k12.mi.us

4GL School Solutions Inc.
http://www.4glschools.com

Baltimore City Public School System
http://www.bcps.k12.md.us

tags

Five states are first to offer Internet2 to schools

Five states have received the green light to start connecting their K-12 schools to Abliene, an ultrahigh-speed Internet2 backbone that until now has been restricted to higher education, government, and private-sector users.

One hundred times faster than a T1 connection to the current internet (referred to as the “commodity internet” by aficionados), Abilene is an advanced backbone network that connects regional aggregation points—known as gigaPoPs—to support the development and deployment of advanced internet applications created by Internet2 member universities.

Selected as “sponsored educational group participants,” state networks in Michigan, Missouri, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington will now be able to offer their schools access to Internet2’s advanced research capabilities.

“Internet2 opens up school districts beyond their boundaries,” said Greg Marks, special assistant for K-12 outreach at Merit Network, a nonprofit, non-subsidized division of Merit University that provides internet service to Michigan schools.

On Interent2, students can view slides from an electron microscope at a remote university, explore the ocean in a remote-controlled underwater vehicle, or access Carnegie Mellon University’s extensive digital video library.

“We can now offer [schools] access to a new realm of digital experiences,” said Nancy Piringer, project manager at MOREnet, the Missouri Research and Education Network. “They will be able to do a lot more than they were able to do with the commodity internet.”

A fourth-grade class working on a project on World War II, for example, could videoconference with the curator at the Truman Library, receive a virtual tour, and be able to ask questions in real time, she said.

In addition, Internet2 can deliver tele-immersion—which is like videoconferencing, except users have the visual experience of being in the same room with a person who is actually in another city—and other virtual-reality programs that give a three-dimensional experience. Wearing 3-D goggles and body sensors, students can virtually explore a person’s bone structure or a functioning heart.

“Tele-immersion, for most people, is the most ‘wow,’ the most amazing,” Marks said. “You can go into various parts of anatomy and really look around.”

At this stage, Marks said, Merit Network is informing schools about the resources they could access through Internet2. Merit Network plans to offer Michigan schools access to Internet2 for no extra fee, provided that the school’s network connection is of high enough quality to handle the various applications.

“We won’t see any significant use until fall,” Marks said. “We are more in the gathering-momentum-and-informing-schools stage.”

Now that K-12 schools have permission to use Internet2, the major hurdle for schools is deciding what applications to use. “The interesting and challenging question to school districts is, how are they going to use this in their classrooms or by the school administrators,” Marks said.

Michigan has a fair number of schools that have the infrastructure in place to take advantage of Internet2, Marks said; the next step “really comes down to the applications.”

Merit Network will work with each district to identify its Internet2 needs and help fulfill them. The group has posted on its web site a small bullet-point list of applications that are possible with Internet2 to trigger districts’ enthusiasm and get them thinking, Marks said.

“Some of the schools are ready to go, and others will have to think about what they will do with Internet2,” he said.

Marks said he thinks a number of Michigan districts will use Internet2 for professional development initiatives.

“Even before Internet2 came along, there were a lot of professional development problems,” Marks said. Using Internet2 to conduct teacher training also introduces teachers to its capabilities, so they are more inclined to use it in the classroom.

“It’s not my expectation that schools will being doing any sort of software development, they’re really taking advantage of resources that exist out there [already] on Interent2,” he said.

Because universities developed the existing Internet2 applications for education and research, they’re generally available to K-12 schools for free.

“At this point, I don’t know of any … for which there is a charge,” Marks said. “There may be issues of scheduling, like in the case of the electron microscope.”

Piringer said Missouri schools also are in the formative stages when it comes to Internet2. MOREnet currently is educating schools about the capabilities of Internet2, so schools can start thinking about how they’ll use it.

“Theoretically, they could jump on Internet2 through MOREnet right now,” Piringer said. “Where the hang-ups are going to be is understanding the potential of Internet2.”

Missouri’s eMINTS classrooms—which stands for Enhancing Missouri’s Instructional Networked Teaching Strategies—probably will be the first to adopt Internet2, said Dawn Charles, communications officer at MOREnet.

The eMINTS classrooms serve as demonstration classrooms, in which various technologies are piloted before being deployed across the state. “It’s a teacher’s ‘dream classroom’ as far as technology is concerned,” Charles said.

Almost 150 eMINTS classrooms are set up across the state, each one featuring the latest technologies—including interactive SmartBoards, digital cameras, and one computer for every two students. eMINTS teachers also complete a two-year training program in how to integrate the technology into the curriculum.

“Opening up the backbone is by no means the solution, it’s just an important step,” said Internet2 spokesman Greg Wood. Internet2 isn’t useful without the applications and resources developed by its members, he said.

“We are definitely still focusing on higher education,” Wood said. But opening the network to K-12 schools not only provides more resources to schools, it also allows higher-education institutions interested in K-12 schools to complete their missions of researching and developing applications for K-12 education, he said.

Links:

Abilene
http://www.internet2.edu/abilene

MOREnet: Missouri Research & Education Network
http://www.more.net

Merit Network
http://www.merit.edu

Oregon Public Education Network CyberSchool
http://www.cyberschool.k12.or.us

Washington K-20 Education Network
http://www.wa.gov/K20

Net.Work.Virginia
http://www.networkvirginia.net

tags

San Francisco passes up $50 million in eRate funds

District officials in San Francisco have decided to reject a federal eRate grant that would have brought $50 million in telecommunications discounts, internet access, and wiring to the cash-strapped district. The decision raises questions about the benefits and restrictions associated with accepting eRate discounts.

According to officials from San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), the decision came when officials could not come up with the approximately $10 million in required matching funds and discovered that the terms of the program did not fit into the district’s technology plans.

SFUSD applied for the eRate funding last year, before current Superintendent Arlene Ackerman took office.

According to Eloise Brooks, Ackerman’s chief of staff, the grant did not look like such a great deal to the new administration.

“Basically, someone outside of the district has decided—in isolation of the school district—that we need something that we do not need,” Brooks said. “We have other needs that we have to address, and we are getting criticized for this. I do not think it’s fair.”

The funding allotted to SFUSD in Year Three of the eRate program would have amounted to about $49,150,000 for internal connections (wiring and routing), $42,380 for internet access (paid to an internet service provider), and $1, 072,000 for telecommunications services (paid to the telephone company), according to a report from the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Services Administrative Company (USAC), the administrator of the eRate.

But in exchange for those services and discounts, the 60,000-student district would have to front some of its own cash, too.

Differing opinions

According to Mel Blackwell, a spokesman for the SLD, the district would have to pay whatever the eRate did not cover, up to 100 percent of the project’s cost.

Since the level of need in the district (determined by the number of children receiving free and reduced-price lunches) dictated that the eRate should fund 83 percent of the project’s cost, the district would have to fund an additional 17 percent itself, Blackwell explained. That means SFUSD would have to put up about $10 million of its own money.

In a letter to the editors of the San Francisco Chronicle, which has been reporting on the district’s financial woes, district officials wrote that “after analysis, it was determined that the $50 million eRate grant would cost the district $18 million.”

Brooks said the discrepancy reflected the additional expenses the district would incur to rewire some schools.

“If we were doing this on our own, we’d put [Category-5] wiring in our elementary schools, not fiber,” she said. “Fiber is very expensive and, frankly, it may not be necessary in our elementary schools. That’s the reason this is a $50 million grant.”

Brooks said that installing fiber-optic cabling would require SFUSD to pull the wiring out of at least 12 schools that already have Cat-5 wiring.

But according to the former district employee who prepared the eRate application, an electrical assessment by the district and by an independent electrical company was conducted before the eRate money was requested.

“That [electrical survey] said all 46 schools in the eRate application met the requirements for basic hookups,” said Tim Tronson, former district consultant for facilities planning.

Tronson left the district after Superintendent Ackerman took office and let his contract lapse.

“I think it is noteworthy that Mr. Tronson was let go due to bad management processes,” said Brooks, who would not specify exactly what those practices were. Instead, she referred to an article in the Chronicle in which district officials indicated Tronson’s department was bloated and financially irresponsible.

That’s just sour grapes, Tronson maintains.

“At this point, I really don’t care if they take the money or not. But what I do care about is that the district is honest about why they are not taking the grant,” he said.

“Basically, one of three things is going on,” he said. “One, either they never looked at the eRate issue until this point; two, they looked at it but did not understand it; or three, they never intended to go through with this.” Tronson believes the third option is closest to the truth.

District officials admit that coming up with the matching money is a major concern for SFUSD.

“This is about fiscal responsibility,” said Brooks, who added there are other pending items that Ackerman feels take precedence over technology and wiring improvements.

But Tronson does not believe SFUSD can’t come up with the money, explaining that when Ackerman took over from interim Superintendent Linda Davis, the new school chief gave all teachers a 14 percent pay raise, an expense of about $30 million.

“Both vendors—NEC and Inter-Tel—have said they would finance this [project] for seven years,” he added. “There are a number of revenue sources they could use to pay for this without taking on debt.”

Not ‘part of the plan’

But the money is not the only problem, district officials explain.

In the letter to the Chronicle, Jackie Wright, the district’s director of public information, wrote that “the grant was not part of the district’s education plan” and stated: “The type of unilateral decision that prompted the grant is indicative of past practices that led to the district’s current financial problems.”

The district maintains that the information technology and instruction departments were left out of the eRate application process, an allegation Tronson hotly contests.

“There were several meetings with the IT department. All the data on the application came from those meetings,” he said. “The IT participation is documented. To say they don’t want to take the grant because it was not filed properly is bull.”

Tronson and SFUSD officials also differ on whether computers—which are not eligible for funding unless they are servers—would be a part of the eRate project.

In her letter to the Chronicle, Wright stated that the project “would not put computers in the classroom, as [the Chronicle had] erroneously indicated.”

But according to Tronson, before NEC’s bid for the grant was approved, the company had offered to throw in 100 computers to each of the 46 schools sites, including two years of maintenance and training for teachers.

“I’ve not seen that in writing,” said Brooks. “There is no legal document that would let us hold them to this, and that means … we’d have to [supply the hardware] ourselves.”

NEC declined to comment about its relationship with SFUSD.

“This is a case of the tail wagging the dog,” Brooks said. “Why should we be forced into doing something that is not in the plan?”

District officials have not yet discussed the possibility of passing a bond issue that would help SFUSD fund its portion of the $50 million, said Brooks.

SFUSD officials hope to resolve the issue in a way that allows them to make use of at least part of the funding. According to Brooks, the district is checking with the SLD to see how the proposal could be amended to meet their needs.

“We have people in Washington working on that right now,” said Brooks.

In fact, according to the administrators of the eRate, it is not unusual for a district to accept only a portion of the funds it is eligible for.

“There is a very good chance we can change the terms around to better meet the needs of SFUSD,” said the SLD’s Blackwell. “We really want to them to come out of this with what they want.”

Links:

San Francisco Unified School District
http://www.sfusd.k12.ca.us

Schools and Libraries Division of USAC
http://www.sl.universalservice.org

NEC Global
http://www.nec-global.com

tags

Bush budget would slash school technology funding

Education technology funding would decrease by about $55 million, under the Fiscal Year 2002 budget proposal that President George W. Bush sent to Congress April 9. Bush’s proposal consolidates nine education technology programs into a single block grant, funded at $817 million, down from $872 in Fiscal 2001.

The administration budget is not likely to be enacted without significant modification in Congress, but it is nonetheless an important bellwether of the president’s priorities.

The plan would create a single education technology grant program under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 that would be performance-based and would attempt to reduce the number of grant applications required by schools. The funds would continue to be targeted to rural and poorer schools.

Schools could use the money for buying hardware and software (including filtering technologies) or training teachers to integrate technology into the classroom, although schools also would be held accountable for how the funds directly affect student achievement.

The nine programs to be consolidated would include the Technology Literacy Challenge Fund, Technology Innovation Challenge Grants, Regional Technology in Education Consortia, Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology (PT3), Community-based Technology Centers, Technology Leadership Activities, Star Schools, Ready-to-Learn Television, and Telecommunications Demonstration Project for Mathematics.

Keith Krueger, executive director of the Consortium for School Networking, a leading ed-tech advocacy group, said he was alarmed by the president’s budget proposal for three reasons: It reduces funding from FY 2001, includes PT3 in the consolidation, and would distribute the block grants by formula.

“We think the PT3 part doesn’t make sense,” Krueger said. PT3 “funds preservice [teacher] preparation, and it goes to colleges. It’s unlikely that any money will get spent on preservice technology [training] in this scenario.”

Bush’s budget also talks about changing the eRate program, so schools could use the money for more than just connectivity.

“The administration is seeking administrative improvements in the eRate to ensure that this program provides greater flexibility to schools and libraries in how they use their eRate discounts, while reducing the administrative burden they have faced in applying for educational technology funds,” the budget states.

Krueger said this request would put “additional strain on the program, which is capped at $2.25 billion and is already oversubscribed.” He added, “This is calling for a rule that, when you get to the specifics, [would] create more problems than it [would] solve.”

Jim Hirsch, assistant superintendent of technology for the Plano Independent School District in Texas, also expressed concern.

“This reduction in educational technology spending will have more impact than the $55 million [figure], since federal grants typically have some type of matching source,” Hirsch said. “The actual reduction on educational technology programs will be more in the range of two to four times the ‘visible’ $55 million federal reduction.

“Even though the rhetoric points to assisting our most needy schools, reductions in educational technology may hit hardest there, since [these schools] have fewer alternative funding sources,” Hirsch added. “In addition, funds not allocated to challenge or research grants will diminish one of the few sources of research and development funding that schools have had access to for the purpose of developing and field-testing new concepts and tools.”

Overall, the U.S. Education Department would get an additional $4.6 billion—the largest increase of all the cabinets—under Bush’s budget proposal, but only half of that money would go directly to schools.

Education Secretary Rod Paige explained that a large portion of the funding is allocated to solving management problems in the department.

The president’s education plan, No Child Left Behind, asks for high standards, accountability, annual testing of all students in grades 3 to 8 in reading and math, a focus on research-based practices, reduced bureaucracy and greater flexibility for states, and expanded options for parents to make choices for their children’s education.

These requests are reflected throughout Bush’s budget.

Funding for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program—which supports approximately 6,300 after-school programs for children in low-performing schools—would remain at $846 million.

The budget would set aside $472 million for a new program called Choice Innovation State Grants to help schools implement innovative strategies for improving student achievement. Bush’s plan earmarks $320 million to help states develop and use annual reading and math assessments for all students in grades 3 through 8. These funds aim to measure and assess student, school, and state progress.

To help school districts turn failing schools around, improve teacher quality, and make sure all students meet state standards, Bush asks for $9.1 billion in Title I grants, an increase of $459 million. Of these funds, $400 million would be dedicated to the lowest-performing schools.

The budget would reserve $900 million for Reading First state grants, a program that aims to help school districts start research-based reading programs for students in kindergarten through grade three. Paige said this figure more than triples the amount designated for reading last year.

Bush’s plan would consolidate several existing programs, including the Class Size Reduction and Eisenhower Professional Development State Grants programs, into a new state grant—funded at $2.6 billion, $375 million more than in FY 2001—to give states greater flexibility in improving teacher quality.

To give parents more choices, Bush’s plan would allocate $175 million for a new program called Charter Schools Homestead Fund. This fund would provide grants so charter schools could build, lease, purchase, or renovate facilities. Funding for charter schools also would increase by $10 million, to $200 million, to increase the number of charter schools.

The Special Education Grants to States program would increase from $6.3 billion to $7.3 billion. Paige said each child with a disability could receive an extra $1,133 on top of their per-pupil expenditure.

Bush proposes $1.3 billion in Impact Aid funding for school construction, an increase of $137 million over FY 2001 levels. But his budget would entirely erase the School Renovation State Grants program, a new $1.2 billion school construction program created by Congress last year.

In an effort to get more teachers in high-need areas, Bush’s plan would offer new math and science teachers who teach in low-income communities between $5,000 and $17,500 in loan forgiveness. He also would provide $30 million for the Department of Defense’s Troops to Teachers program, which aims to increase the number of high-quality teachers in poor school districts.

Outside the Education Department, Bush’s budget would provide $300 million in loans and $25 million in grants for distance learning through a Department of Agriculture program called Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grants, the same funding level as in FY 2001. Bush also proposes a new program, called Broadband Grants, that would provide $100 million in loans and $2 million in grants to pay for fiber-optic cabling.

Through the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant, the president’s budget would provide $80 million in matching grants to support Community Technology Centers in high-poverty areas.

However, Bush proposes only $15.5 million for the Commerce Department’s Technology Opportunities Program (TOP), which aims to close the digital divide by enabling public and nonprofit groups in rural and high-poverty areas to pay for computers and access to the internet.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications, said he is making a strong effort to convince the Bush administration to forgo its plans to cut the budget for TOP. “It’s imperative that we have this type of funding where people need it most, or else these communities will fall behind,” he said.

Links:

Bush’s budget proposal
http://w3.access.gpo.gov/usbudget

Consortium for School Networking
http://www.cosn.org

Plano Independent School District
http://www.pisd.edu

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich.
http://www.house.gov/upton

tags