Although the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States have shifted the country’s focus to security and the war against terrorism, sources on Capitol Hill tell eSchool News the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) remains on target for this fall.

ESEA outlines how federal dollars will be allocated for education programs, including school technology. Members of a joint legislative committee are working on a compromise between the Senate and House versions of the ESEA reauthorization bill, and sources say the spirit of bipartisanship that has risen from the attacks may actually help the negotiations along.

Despite these assurances, much remains to be worked out. The Senate version would retain a greater number of individual technology programs, while the House version seeks to consolidate funding into a single block grant.

Whatever happens, one thing is clear: Much of next year’s technology funding will be distributed to schools by states in the form of block grants.

One program that will be hotly debated is Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology, known as PT3. Funded at $125 million last year, it is reauthorized in the Senate version of the bill, but not the House version. PT3 provides funding to consortia of school districts and colleges of education to ensure that teachers-in-training learn how to use technology to improve learning.

“There will be consolidation of technology programs; it is just a question of degree,” said Mark Schneiderman, director of federal education policy for the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA). But Schneiderman said his organization hopes PT3 is one of the programs that is maintained in its unconsolidated state.

“Our view is that there is no alternative to a specific program, because once you have a block grant, you lose the focus,” Schneiderman said. He added that preparing the next generation of teachers to use technology in the classroom is an important priority and one the federal government should not abandon.

Also included by the Senate but not the House is the Star Schools program, which is likely to be reapproved intact.

“I would guess that Star Schools will be continued in some way,” said Schneiderman. “It has friends in high places,” he said, referring to the fact that Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., is one of the initial authors of the program. Kennedy is a key member of the joint legislative committee that is working on a compromise version of the bill; other key members include Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., and Reps. John Boehner, R-Ohio, and George Miller, D-Calif.

At least one technology program under Title III of the current ESEA will remain as a separate program. Ready to Teach, Ready to Learn–which funds commercial-free educational programming, such as that on the Public Broadcasting Service network–is funded at $50 million in 2002 in both the Senate and House versions of the reauthorization bill.

Compromise will not be without pain. “It will be harder on those from the Senate,” said Lindsey Kozberg, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education. Kozberg noted that it’s difficult to see a pet program submerged under a larger funding umbrella. But she believes the conference committee is dedicated to a quick turnaround on the final version of the bill. “It’s been a very disciplined, very committed group,” she said.

Jim Manley, press secretary for Sen. Kennedy, is more guarded in his optimism. He said the committee has set no firm deadlines for completion, but noted that “the president went out of his way to say he hopes we have a bill soon.”

However, assuring appropriate levels of funding is a priority for Kennedy. “Senator Kennedy feels that we can’t have reforms without adequate funding,” Manley said.

Kennedy is not the only one concerned about adequate funding. Both the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) and SIIA are concerned that block grants–especially those awarded partially by formula, as specified in the House version of the bill–will spread money too thinly to be effective. Early estimates say the median technology grant made to a school district could hover around $15,000.

The House version calls for block grants awarded 60 percent by formula and 40 percent on a competitive basis. The Senate has called for monies to be awarded totally on a competitive basis.

“We are concerned that the grant program isn’t large enough” and that it might be “diluted to ineffectiveness,” said SIIA’s Schneiderman. “Under $50,000 to 60,000 [per district] is not a wise use of federal funds.”

Schneiderman said his organization would prefer to see fewer, but larger, grants as opposed to many small ones. “The competitive [system] gives states more flexibility,” he said.

Funding will come easiest to those education programs that fit with President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” plan. Jeehang Lee, senior legal associate for Leslie Harris and Associates, which represents CoSN in legislative matters, said he expects “a large, across-the-board increase in education [funding],” especially where the proposals are congruent with those of the president.

Committee members are guarded in their willingness to adjudicate disputes through the press. “Chairman Boehner doesn’t want [the debate] conferenced out through the media,” said Heather Valentine, press secretary for the House Education and Workforce Committee. So far, the committee has presented a united front.

Despite concerns that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 might take funding or attention away from education, Kozberg predicts no ill effects. “It [the attack] doesn’t make [education] any less significant,” she said.

A spirit of bipartisanship that has descended upon the Capitol following the attack may also help speed ESEA through committee, Kozberg said. Valentine agrees, stating that “this is a time when people are trying to work together and get things done.”

The committee expects to begin releasing parts of the completed bill as agreement is reached, perhaps as soon as the last week in September. Valentine believes the first part to be released will be the final version of the president’s Reading First program.

Technology decisions are not expected to emerge until later in the process.

Links:

Software and Information Industry Association
http://www.siia.net

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
http://www.senate.gov/~kennedy

Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio
http://www.house.gov/boehner

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

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