With state governments from Maine to California facing severe budget shortfalls, legislators and state education officials are targeting school technology programs for possible budget cuts.
An already-slumping economy, further damaged by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, has left several states scrambling to balance their budgets. As many as 44 states face serious budget shortfalls, and at least half of these say they’re going to cut education programs, according to Michael Griffith, an analyst at the Education Commission of the States in Denver.
“Some states have been hit harder than others. What we’ve seen in the past is that they will cut categorical funding first,” Griffith said. Technology is seen as something new, and these are the first kinds of programs to be cut, he said.
One of the hardest-hit states is Florida, which does not have a state income tax. Instead, it relies on its sales tax to pay nearly one-third of its $48.2 billion budget. After Sept. 11, tourism to the Sunshine State fell off precipitously, prompting hotel layoffs and causing Gov. Jeb Bush to encourage Floridians to visit parts of their own state to make up for the lack of out-of-state tourism.
The Florida state legislature is currently in special session, hoping to deal with a $1.3 billion shortfall. Among the programs in jeopardy is a $10 million initiative, approved by the state Legislature earlier this year, to put cutting-edge technologiessuch as wireless handheld computersinto students’ hands.
But the $10 million technology program might be the least of the schools’ worries. A state Senate panel agreed Nov. 27 to cut $591 million from Florida’s education budget, including $396 million earmarked for public schools. Under the Senate’s plans, districts would see average cuts of 2.3 percent in state funds across the board.
School districts across Florida have frozen hiring, canceled travel, and postponed purchases of equipment, said Wayne Blanton, head of the Florida School Boards Association. They’re also looking to their reserves. Many districts, though not all, have budget reserves of about 2 to 3 percent.
In Georgia, a similar pilot technology program has been spared from $15.6 million in budget cuts announced Nov. 19. The Georgia Wireless Classroom Project, a $10 million initiative to be funded over three years with proceeds from the state lottery, will provide internet-based instruction and wirelessly networked laptop computers to every student and teacher in eight pilot middle schools.
But budget cuts will force Georgia education officials to scale back on a statewide data mining and warehousing project, as well as teacher training and administration.
In Massachusetts, lawmakers have pulled the plug on an internet service used by some 27,000 teachers and administrators statewide. But the state Department of Education said it had reached a deal with RCN Cable Nov. 29 that would keep users’ eMail accounts running through the end of the school year.
MassEd.Net, which provides inexpensive eMail and internet access to the states’ educators to encourage them to find teaching material online, had planned to shut down Nov. 30 at 5 p.m. because there was no money for it in the state budget.
“We’re furious,” said Marilyn DeLena, a Hamilton-Wenham School District computer and banking teacher, before the extension was announced. She uses the eMail service to set up student internships, organize field trips, and arrange courses with North Shore Community College.
Through MassEd.Net, teachers could get eight months of eMail and internet access for $56. The Department of Education requested $2.1 million to continue the program this year, but the budget approved by the Legislature eliminated the money.
Under the new agreement, teachers and administrators will get their $56 refunded and receive free internet access through the end of December. After that, they can pay $13.95 per month to extend the service through June, a Department of Education spokeswoman said.
Budget shortfalls in Maine, meanwhile, might undercut a groundbreaking program, proposed by Gov. Angus King last year, to funnel $30 million into providing 34,000 laptop computers for each of the state’s seventh- and eighth-grade students.
In early December, the state selected a winning bid from Apple Computer to supply Apple’s latest iBook laptop, complete with wireless connections and internet access. But funding remains a thorny issue amid projections of a steep downturn in state revenues in the coming year. Lawmakers already slashed $20 million from the laptop program during the last legislative session.
“If we don’t have enough money, we cut back on some things,” Sen. Michael J. McAlevey, R-Waterboro, told the Associated Press Dec. 3. “Everything should be on the table.”
Declines in state tax revenues have forced King to order a 2 percent reduction in discretionary grants to education. But that reportedly has created some resentment in the state Legislature among opponents of the governor’s controversial laptop plan, who feel the laptops should be first to go.
Other states forced to make decisions about education cuts include California ($3.5 billion), New York ($1.5 billion), and Washington ($800 million).
If there’s a bright side for school technology programs, budget cutbacks likely will mean a slowdown in expansion, rather than elimination altogether, Griffith said.
“[Schools] won’t take computers out of the classroom; they just won’t get new and updated computers,” he said.
Assistant Editor Cara Branigan, freelance writer Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti, and material from the Associated Press contributed to this report.
Education Commission of the States
Florida Department of Education
Georgia Department of Education
Maine Learning Technology Endowment