As members of the United States Senate debate their version of a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) this week, education and technology advocates have announced their support for an amendment to create model tech-savvy school districts in each state and the District of Columbia. They hope to rally support for the legislation among members of the eSchool movement.

The National Digital School Districts Amendment, sponsored by Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., would fund model “digital districts” in an effort to implement the vision of the bipartisan Web-based Education Commission.

That commission, which was led by former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., and Rep. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., was impaneled during the Clinton administration to uncover and report on the potential of the internet for learning.

The commission released a report, “The Power of the Internet for Learning,” late last year, calling on policymakers to enact an eLearning agenda for the nation’s schools.

The proposed amendment, which would create a national version of Pennsylvania’s Digital School District program, is supported by the SchoolTone Alliance, a not-for-profit, independent consortium of companies promoting the benefits of internet-based computing in schools. Members of the SchoolTone Alliance include bigchalk.com, BritannicaSchool.com, HighWired.com, Lucent Technologies, National Semiconductor, PowerSchool, Riverdeep, and Sun Microsystems.

The amendment also has been endorsed by the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, and the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA), a D.C.-based technology advocacy group. CCIA has released a white paper in support of the Web-based Education Commission’s recommendations and the Cantwell-Enzi amendment.

The initial legislative language called for the authorization of $150 million over two years for each state to oversee a competitive grant process, by which school districts would propose comprehensive, districtwide strategies for using technology to improve the learning environment.

In the first year of the process, one district from each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia would have received funding. In the second year, state and local governments would have provided matching funds to create a second grant.

In the third year, the legislation would have authorized $25 million to conduct a nationwide study to compare, evaluate, and assess the 102 individual model programs to evaluate effective and ineffective uses of technology in schools.

But the language that finally appeared before the Senate June 7 was far broader and bore little resemblance to the detailed agenda initially outlined by the amendment’s authors and supporters.

According to Jason Mahler, CCIA’s vice president and general counsel, the initial figures were struck from the amendment shortly before ESEA came up for discussion in the Senate, in an effort to align the amendment with the block-grant format passed in the House version.

“With the funding recommendations, we feel [the amendment] may not have passed,” he said. “[Districts] can apply for the funds they need, but the initial figures were struck from the amendment.”

In the final version presented to senators, the amendment would fund district-level programs designed to “encourage the effective integration of technology resources and systems with teacher training and curriculum development, to establish research-based methods that can be widely implemented into best practices.”

Once those criteria have been met at the participating districts, the legislation requires that not later than 36 months after the date of enactment, school officials and the Department of Education shall report to Congress on the findings of those pilot programs.

“We particularly liked the idea that at the end of the three years, [the amendment] would allow us to actually assess what the best practices for school technology are,” said Kim Jones, vice president for global education and research at Sun Microsystems.

Legislators and lobbyists expect the amendment to be rolled into the ESEA bill pending a voice vote.

According to Kim Anderson, a lobbyist for the National Education Association, the question is whether it will stay in the bill when it goes to conference. “It depends how hard [the conferencing legislators] will push to have a pared-down bill, and we just don’t know that yet,” she said.

The amendment may come up for a voice vote as early as this week, and its supporters remain optimistic about its inclusion of the final version of ESEA.

“I believe that Democrats and Republicans can build a consensus on this,” said Jones. “I know they all think that technology is one of the areas where we can make a difference in education.”

Advocates of the measure are urging members of the eSchool movement to contact their senators and representatives to express support for the Cantwell-Enzi, Digital School District amendment.

Links:

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

SchoolTone Alliance
http://www.schooltone.com

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

Sen. Maria Cantwell
http://cantwell.senate.gov

Sen. Mike Enzi
http://enzi.senate.gov