School technology programs and categorical education grants are likely to be primary beneficiaries of the historic mid-term reorganization of the U.S. Senate that took place June 6, according to education advocates and legislative experts in the nation’s capital.

In the aftermath of Vermont Sen. James M. Jeffords’ departure from the Republican Party, education technology experts say the shift in power among leaders of the U.S. Senate from Republican to Democrat could help ensure that federal leadership on ed-tech issues remains strong. The impact won’t be ubiquitous, however, they said.

Most of the education experts and lobbyists who spoke with eSchool News agree, for example, that the switch probably will have little effect on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

“I think that the changes will be modest at this point,” said Leslie Harris, president of Leslie Harris & Associates, a legislative analyst for the Consortium for School Networking and other ed-tech advocacy groups. “This is still a Senate that has to compromise with a Republican House and a Republican president.”

That means block grants for school technology, which are strongly supported by the Bush administration, remain likely. Overall, however, education experts and ed-tech lobbyists are confident their priorities for technology and training will remain well-supported under the new Democratic leadership in the Senate.

“Generally, Democrats have always been more favorable to the federal role in education,” said Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the American Library Association’s Washington office.

One example is the support of Senate Democrats for keeping the Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology program as a separate grant program in the Senate version of the ESEA reauthorization bill. The Bush administration’s plan to reauthorize ESEA favors a more hands-off approach by the government toward telling school districts how they must spend federal education dollars, but critics say this approach fails to provide the necessary leadership on issues such as teacher training.

New committee chairs

In a public statement made May 24, Jeffords cited differences with the Bush administration as one of the primary reasons for his decision to leave the GOP, and he reiterated his determination to make education a top priority as an independent.

“Looking ahead, I can see more and more instances where I will disagree with the president on very fundamental issues,” he said. “The largest for me is education.”

In fact, Jeffords—a dedicated advocate of education reform—cited federal funding for education priorities as one of his main reasons for deciding to quit the Republican Party.

The evenly divided Senate formerly favored Republican agendas. That was because Vice President Dick Cheney, as president of the Senate, could cast the tie-breaking vote in key policy debates. The newly restructured Senate now claims 49 Republicans, 50 Democrats, and Jeffords as the sole independent. Jeffords’ move gave Democrats the power to restructure the leadership of all committees in the Senate.

Among the most significant changes spurred by Jeffords’ switch, the ranking Democrat, Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, will now chair the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, formerly chaired by Jeffords himself.

According to Kennedy spokesman Jim Manley, the senator is dedicated to education technology issues and has worked with Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and others in the past to encourage the development of distance-learning initiatives. For example, Kennedy was one of the authors of the legislation that established the Star Schools program, which this year will make nearly $60 million in grants to support telecommunications-based instructional programs.

Another potential benefit of Kennedy’s chairmanship is that he has an experienced staff that has been working on education topics for a long time, Sheketoff said.

Jeffords’ decision also ousted Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., as Senate majority leader. Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., has assumed that position.

“I know that having Daschle as majority leader gives us an opportunity to stress education funding,” said Kim Anderson, a lobbyist for the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teacher’s union. “Democrats are traditionally more sympathetic to the argument that you cannot have reform without resources.”

Anderson added, “From a funding aspect, this [change] is going to help. It gives us more leverage with the folks [who] hold the purse strings.”

In addition, the change means Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, will chair the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Education Department’s budget—one of the key groups that control those “purse strings.”

The ALA supports Harkin’s chairmanship, said Sheketoff. “He has a fundamental understanding of how technology will be integrated into education,” she said.

According to Sheketoff, one of Harkin’s pet causes is helping the people with disabilities.

“Assistive technologies have allowed more and more children with disabilities to be mainstreamed into our schools,” she said. “[Harkin] has seen how technology has had an amazing impact on helping the disabled.”

In his new position, Harkin will take the lead in writing the Senate’s next education spending bill.

But the education subcommittee is not the only place where education technology might benefit in the coming months, Sheketoff said.

“Senator [Robert] Byrd will be the head of the overall Senate Appropriations committee, and he’s from West Virginia. That state has benefited greatly from the eRate program, and he has seen the positive impact the eRate has had in schools there,” she said.

With the decisions of the federal judiciary increasingly important to education and school technology, the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee also could be of vital concern to educators.

Here, an arch-conservative is being succeeded by a staunch liberal. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D.-Vt., will take over from Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah.

Leahy is expected to make it more difficult for President Bush to get Senate approval for strongly conservative judicial appointments, and this could have a significant impact on legal decisions affecting education and technology for years to come.

eRate likely to remain intact

Perhaps the most important shift, according to eRate advocates, will take place in the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation-the group that sets policy for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the agency that oversees the eRate. Formerly chaired by Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., leadership of that committee will now pass to Sen. Fritz Hollings, D.-S.C.

“If I had to identify one possible area where the shift might make a difference, it is in the long-term health of the eRate,” said Harris.

The eRate, currently in its fourth year, has supplied more than $6 billion in telecommunications discounts and internet connections to needy schools.

Recently, said Harris, there has been talk about the eRate becoming more like a block-grant program in which money is allotted to states for distribution, rather than given directly to district applicants. Harris also cited increased debate about the possibility of changing the program so that it covers professional development.

“There are a lot of ideas being kicked around,” she said. “There is also language in the president’s budget that urges the FCC to look at some of those changes.” Leadership of the FCC recently passed to the Republicans.

Most schools and libraries fiercely oppose changes to the program, which had helped connect well over one million classrooms to the internet as of last year.

“I think that, for the most part, constituents have successfully communicated to their members of Congress that this [changing the eRate] is not an issue they support,” said Sheketoff.

Harris said she believes the Senate changes will help put the brakes on some of the debate about changing the eRate.

But a “safer” eRate is not a direct result of the switch in Senate chairmanships, according to Harris, who called former chairman McCain “a great supporter of the eRate.” Rather, protection for the eRate in its current form could come because the Senate’s new leadership can decide which issues to take up. Harris said it is unlikely that eRate changes will make the grade on a Senate agenda controlled by Democrats.

“Democratic eRate advocates now will have more control over what appears on the Senate agenda—and keeping [those proposed changes] off of the Senate agenda is more likely now,” she said.

Another item that may inspire debate under Hollings’ new chairmanship is the Internet Freedom and Broadband Deployment Act of 2001, a bill proposed by Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., and Rep. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich.

According to the NEA’s Anderson, the Tauzin-Dingell bill seeks to provide the regional Bell operating companies with the first shot at rolling out wireless broadband, but it does not require local competition.

“Broadband access is something many schools—particularly rural and underserved schools—really need. The issue is not one of access, but quality of access. You can’t run cable through corn fields,” she said.

But Hollings might “stop that bill in its tracks,” because Tauzin-Dingell would go against the deregulation that took place under the terms of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Anderson said.

“It’s not likely to pass now, because Senator Hollings takes a dim view of it,” said Jason Mahler, vice president and general counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based Computer and Communication Industry Association. “Now that he’s chairman of the Commerce Committee, it does not bode well for that piece of legislation.”

Hollings is interested in broadband deployment, just not the Tauzin-Dingell bill, Anderson said, citing an alternative bill sponsored by Sens. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.

That bill would give a 10-percent tax credit to companies that provide broadband services to low-income (rural and underserved) communities, and a 20-percent tax credit to companies that provide “next generation,” or high-speed, wireless services.

Links:

United States Senate
http://www.senate.gov

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

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

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

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

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

Computer and Communication Industry Association
http://www.ccianet.org