As a conference committee of House and Senate leaders meets to decide how funding should be distributed for various education programs, a coalition of leading ed-tech companies is urging committee members to fund school technology through competitive grants instead of by formula.

The formula approach, which is favored in the House version of a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) but not in the Senate version, would severely dilute the amount of money available per district for technology, the companies say—making impossible the kind of systemic reforms the grants are meant to stimulate.

“As currently under consideration, the core ESEA technology grant program is insufficient to support a formula allocation to all school districts, or even all Title I districts,” wrote Irene Spero, executive director of the SchoolTone Alliance, in a Sept. 25 letter to committee members.

“Even if [school technology is] funded at $1 billion,” the letter continued, “it is estimated that the median district grant would be about $15,000 [if allocated by formula]—an amount inadequate to leverage the power of the internet, to utilize the full range of technology resources, and to fund the necessary infrastructure costs.”

The alliance—which includes school technology heavyweights such as bigchalk, AOL@School, National Semiconductor, and Sun Microsystems—also recommends that Congress keep the Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology (PT3) program as a separate grant program under the reauthorized education act.

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 instruction. Funded at $125 million last year, the program is reauthorized in the Senate version of the bill but not in the House version.

But it’s how funds are distributed to individual districts that may be the big sticking point in the committee’s negotiations. The House version of the ESEA reauthorization bill calls for technology 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, with priority consideration given to poorer school districts.

The SchoolTone Alliance is not alone in supporting the competitive approach. Educational technology associations, such as the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) and the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), also favor competitive grants for technology.

Besides the question of whether funding would be sufficient if distributed by formula, there’s also the issue of transferability. The House version of the education bill would allow school districts to transfer up to 50 percent of their federal funding from certain programs—including technology—to other uses. Ed-tech advocacy groups fear this approach would undermine the priorities set by the federal government.

“Competitive grant funds are protected from transferability in the House [version of the bill],” said Jeehang Lee, senior legislative assistant for Leslie Harris & Associates, which represents CoSN and ISTE in legal matters. “Under a competitive grant, schools have to say they are going to do certain things, so they are obligated [to follow through].”

For many school districts, however, it’s an issue of equity. Ray Jaksa, chief technology officer for the Mansfield Independent School District in Texas, said he favors a formula-based allocation of technology monies.

“One of the things we have a problem with is that if they do make the [funding] competitive, we [wealthier districts] won’t get any of the money,” Jaksa said.

Mansfield is a high-income district with relatively few minority students. If technology funding is distributed by formula, then even a few thousand dollars would help to hire a new teacher or technical support person, Jaksa said. “It’s sharing the wealth, basically,” he said.

Beth Krolak, technology coordinator for the Bowling Green City Schools in Ohio, agrees. Middle-income districts such as hers often get caught in the middle of a funding paradox, she said. They can’t compete with the problems of urban schools, nor do they have the money of wealthier districts when it comes to paying for technology.

“The money should be given out [according to] the number of students,” Krolak said. “We’re not as poor as some districts, but let’s face it—a computer still costs us the same amount.”

However the debate plays out in Congress, most observers say a combination of funding methods is likely. “I expect, at the end of the day, there will be some type of split between competitive and formula-based [technology grants],” said Lee.

But if the reaction of an aide to the House Education and Workforce Committee chairman is any indication, the SchoolTone Alliance letter might have some effect on the negotiations.

When contacted by eSchool News, Dave Schnittger, a spokesman for Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), said, “Chairman Boehner continues to believe some combination of the two [funding types] is necessary, but [he] agrees that the majority of these funds should be allocated on a competitive basis, for many of the same reasons the SchoolTone Alliance outlines in its letter.”

Links:

SchoolTone Alliance
http://www.schooltone.com

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

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