With the federal government earmarking $867 million this year for school technology in the newly signed Elementary and Secondary Education Act (see “New ESEA features carrots, cudgels,” Front Page), it might seem almost petty to complain that this staggering sum is $5 million less than last year and $133 million less than was agreed to by the House and Senate just months ago. Remember, though, that this congressional agreement came before the 9-11 tragedy and official word of the recession.

To taxpayers in a Boston beanery or the coffee shop in Crawford, Texas, the idea of getting nearly $900 million would be a boon to swoon for, not gyp to gripe about. Yet, that’s exactly what leading education advocates seem to be doing.

Is this a case of sheer ingratitude? To determine, that it might help to place the issue in context, try to measure the need against the gift.

Truth is, when compared to the technology job still confronting elementary and secondary schools in this country, the discrepancy between the need and federal aid is glaring.

Right now, just for argument’s sake, let’s say students are using roughly 5 million computers in classrooms from coast to coast. If you agree with the basic view emerging in places such as Maine and Virginia that most every student could benefit from using a laptop, American schools would need another 43 million computers—give or take ten million.

Now, let’s suppose you also could negotiate deals like those struck recently by the Maine Department of Education or the school division in Henrico County, Virginia, (see “Maine buys 36,000 laptops for students, teachers,” Front Page). In that case, you’d need about $43 billion just to equip every student with a laptop, basic software, and some training.

All right, not every kid needs a personal laptop. In fact, students in early elementary grades probably would benefit from using the technology in a cooperative-learning environment.

On the other hand, that supposed $43 billion wouldn’t do a thing to equip teachers with laptops—not to mention administrators and the technology they need for the education enterprise.

I’m not suggesting that a computer in every lap is the sine qua non of school technology. I’m simply using this example as a way to put the federal funding level in context relative to the scope of the job we face.

Now take the ESEA’s $867 million and combine it with $2.5 billion in eRate funding. Perform a straight-line projection through 2007, when ESEA once more will be up for reauthorization. Combined ESEA and eRate funding produces nearly $17 billion in federal funding for school technology over the life of the new ESEA.

All this merely serves to remind us of a basic fact of life in American education. Important as it is, the federal government won’t provide the major share of the technology funding needed for America’s schools. In general, federal funding traditionally accounts for approximately 7 percent of the government expenditure on K-12 education.

Conclusion: $867 million per year from the ESEA is by no means chump change. But education advocates have good cause to grouse. Inflated hopes for more aid from Washington have popped. And, as always, the real solution will be found at the state and local levels.

Now more than ever, states will need the courage and persistence of a Gov. Angus King of Maine, and local school systems will need the leadership and vision of a Superintendent Mark Edwards of Henrico County, Va.

To find the wherewithal to fund technology properly in this nation’s schools, educators should clutch with both fists whatever Washington hands out. But in the long run, as a school leader, you’ll need to look homeward for your angels.