Educational technology advocates are quietly celebrating the survival of a handful of specific technology programs in the final version of the education bill approved by House and Senate negotiators Dec. 11. But their victory was overshadowed by the approval of other, more controversial measures, such as mandatory testing of students in reading and math.

Under the plan, millions of students in grades three through eight would be required to take the annual tests, with their scores affecting for the first time how federal aid to their schools is allocated and spent.

“These reforms mean new hope for students in failing schools and new choices for parents who want the best education possible for their children,” said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, who chaired the House-Senate committee that approved the bill.

It now goes to the House and Senate for a final vote, where it is virtually certain to win final passage in the next few days, despite opposition from leading education groups. Lawmakers expect the bill to be on President Bush’s desk by next week.

While Boehner and others called the measure groundbreaking, some observers complained about the final product.

National Education Association President Bob Chase called it “a tremendous disappointment,” saying it would force states to develop and give the annual tests without enough funding from Washington—at a time when they are being hit hard by a recession.

“Considering this bleak fiscal climate, these unfunded and underfunded mandates are irresponsible,” Chase said. “The broad policy goals are laudable, but the lack of support to states suffering an economic decline is lamentable.”

Other opponents of the package include the National School Boards Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the American Association of School Administrators.

Overall, the education bill authorizes $26.5 billion next year for elementary and secondary education—about $8 billion more than this year and about $4 billion more than Bush requested, but nearly $6 billion less than Senate Democrats wanted.

The annual reading and math tests for all students in grades three through eight would tell states which schools are effective. Those with persistently low test scores would have to give some of their federal aid to students for tutoring or transportation to another public school. More aid would flow to schools whose scores don’t improve for two years in a row, but if scores don’t improve afterward, a school’s staff could be changed.

States and school districts also would get more freedom over how they spend federal dollars, but they’d be required to send annual “report cards” showing a school’s standardized test scores compared to others locally and statewide.

Also included is Bush’s signature reading program, which gives schools nearly $1 billion per year for the next five years in hopes that every student will be able to read by third grade.

Ed-tech programs survive

Overshadowed by the controversial testing requirement and other high-profile measures is the fact that a handful of key technology programs from Title III of the current Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) will be preserved, kept apart from a new technology block-grant program approved by lawmakers Oct. 30.

The programs in question—Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology (PT3), Star Schools, Community Technology Centers, and Ready to Learn—were kept as separate programs in the Senate version of the bill, but the House had voted to fold all but Ready to Learn into the $1 billion block-grant program.

As a compromise, PT3 was moved to Title II of the Higher Education Act and is no longer part of ESEA. Legislators have authorized it for 2002 and 2003 “at such sums as may be necessary.”

PT3 makes grants to partnerships between school districts and colleges of education to train preservice teachers how to integrate technology into their teaching before they graduate. In its three years of existence, the program has made 441 grants totaling $275 million.

“We are thrilled that we have two more years of life for a program that truly is reinventing teacher preparation across the nation, even beyond technology,” said Don Knezek, director of the National Center for Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology, which is overseen by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). “This gives us an opportunity to see further results of the program before it is block-granted or turned into a program to stand on its own.” PT3 was funded at $125 million in fiscal 2001, up from $75 million in its first two years. “What we’d ideally like to see is $125 million this year and a similar amount the next year,” Knezek said. “Anything below $100 million will seriously cripple moving the program forward.”

The Star Schools, Community Technology Centers, and Ready to Learn programs were moved from Title V, Part B of the newly reauthorized ESEA (“Enhancing Education through Technology”) to Title V, Part D (“Fund for the Improvement of Education.”)

“Generally we are very pleased with the way the technology programs have come out—they did not really change from point A to point B,” said Jee Hang Lee, senior legislative associate for Leslie Harris & Associates, which represents the Consortium for School Networking and ISTE in legal matters.

The Fund for the Improvement of Education is a separate fund for the education secretary to keep certain programs “of national significance,” Lee said. Transfering the technology programs to this fund amounts to a bit of political gamesmanship that lets House Republicans boast that they trimmed ESEA from 55 to 45 programs, he explained.

“It is our expectation that the money for Star Schools, Community Technology Centers, and Ready to Teach will not come out of the [$1 billion authorized for the] technology block grants,” Lee said.

While ed-tech advocates were happy to see these programs survive in the bill’s final version, some are concerned that a new measure known as “transferability” might divert money earmarked for technology to more pressing needs.

The measure allows school districts that meet certain eligibility requirements to transfer up to 50 percent of their federal funding from certain programs—including technology—to other uses. Lee said he fears the bill’s testing provisions will force schools to take advantage of this flexibility by using technology funds to help meet the new accountability requirements.

Links:

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

United States House of Representatives
http://www.house.gov

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

International Society for Technology in Education
http://www.iste.org

Details of education bill approved by House-Senate conference committee:

  • Authorizes $26.5 billion in 2002 for K-12 education—about $8 billion more than this year. The total is $4 billion more than President Bush requested but nearly $6 billion less than Senate Democrats wanted.

  • Requires annual state tests in reading and math for every child in grades three through eight beginning in 2004-05 school year. Schools whose scores fail to improve two years in a row could receive more federal aid. If scores still fail to improve, low-income students can receive funding for tutoring or transportation to another public school. A school in which scores don’t improve over six years could be restaffed. In schools already considered poor performers, parents could receive tutoring or transportation funds as early as this fall.

  • Requires schools to raise all students to reading and math proficiency in the next 12 years. Schools must also close gaps in scores between wealthy and poor students and white and minority students.

  • Allows churches or other religious groups to provide tutoring and after-school programs.

  • Requires states to ensure within four years that all teachers are qualified to teach in their subject area. States could require teachers to pass subject tests or major in their field in college.

  • Allows school districts to spend federal teacher-quality funds on training, hiring, or higher salaries for teachers.

  • Provides aid to build new charter schools and help existing ones.

  • Requires schools to develop periodic “report cards” showing a school’s standardized test scores compared to others locally and statewide.

  • Provides nearly $1 billion per year for the next five years to improve reading—three times as much as this year—with a goal of making sure every student can read by third grade.

  • Provides $1 billion for a technology block-grant program. States would administer 50 percent of the funds to local school districts competitively and 50 percent according to Title I formula.

  • Allows 50 states to use a small portion of their federal funds as they wish. A pilot program further frees seven states and 150 school districts from most restrictions on spending.

  • Allows districts to transfer up to 50 percent of funds from particular programs—including teacher quality, safe and drug-free schools, and technology—to other programs. Districts would be able to move funds for any educational purpose but would be required to fulfill each program responsibility outlined in their plan that is submitted to the state.

  • Targets Title I funds, slated for low-income students, to the poorest students.

  • Requires schools to test students with limited English skills to ensure they are proficient in English after three consecutive years of attending school in the United States.

  • Strips federal funding from any school district that discriminates against the Boy Scouts or similar groups that bar homosexuals.

  • Provides money to help schools form partnerships with colleges and universities to improve science and math instruction.