Educational technology advocates were quietly celebrating the survival of a handful of specific technology programs in the days following the Dec. 11 approval of the landmark education bill by House and Senate negotiators.

But before President George W. Bush had signed the bill into law Jan. 8, the celebration had turned to disappointment, as Congress approved an appropriations package that will fund educational technology programs at $867 million in 2002—about $5 million less than 2001 levels. This, despite an original agreement in both the House and the Senate to fund ed-tech programs at a full $1 billion this year.

Why the discrepancy? Attempts by eSchool News to reach members of the House-Senate appropriations committee who established the funding levels that Congress ultimately agreed to were unsuccessful at press time, but the nation’s top ed-tech advisor urged educators to look at the larger picture.

“From what I understand, Congress typically authorizes greater amounts of funding than they appropriate,” said John Bailey, newly named director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology (story, far left), who added that “this is a very, very tight budget year.”

The survival of these ed-tech programs was nearly overshadowed by the approval of other, more controversial accountability measures, such as mandatory testing of students in reading and math.

Under the newly reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), 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 education bill.

Flanked by Republican and Democratic leaders who helped negotiate the landmark legislation, Bush signed the bill Jan. 8 at a public school in Hamilton, Ohio, Boehner’s home district.

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.”

The National School Boards Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the American Association of School Administrators also oppose the law for the same reasons. They say it will force states and school districts to spend millions they don’t have.

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 authorizes 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, though depleted

Nearly overshadowed by the controversial testing requirement and other high-profile accountability measures is the fact that a handful of key technology programs from Title III of the old ESEA will be preserved, kept apart from a new technology block-grant program also approved by lawmakers.

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 ESEA bill, but the House had voted to fold all but Ready to Learn into the state block-grant program.

As a compromise, PT3 was moved to Title II of the Higher Education Act and is no longer part of ESEA. 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.”)

However, the new technology block-grant program—which combines the Technology Literacy Challenge Fund and Technology Innovation Challenge Grant programs into single state-administered funds—will receive only $700.5 million in 2002, $12 million less than the Senate and $300 million less than the House had authorized. And most of the other surviving programs have been cut to half their size of a year ago.

PT3 was funded at $62.5 million in the appropriations process, down from $125 million in 2001. The Community Technology Centers program will receive $32.5 million this year, down from $65 million, and the Star Schools program will receive $27.5 million, down from $59 million.

“We are very disappointed that the funding levels for some programs were cut in half,” said Jee Hang Lee, senior legislative associate for Leslie Harris & Associates, which represents the Consortium for School Networking and the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in legal matters.

“Our general opinion of the appropriations [process] is that we are happy the technology block grants were funded at $700 million,” Lee said, though he added, “We were, of course, hoping to get closer to the [$1 billion] authorization level.”

PT3 makes grants to partnerships between school districts and colleges of education to train pre-service 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.

“The biggest concern with PT3 funding is that it signals a backing off on the commitment to giving teachers what they need. It is a real disappointment,” said Don Knezek, director of the National Center for Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology, which is overseen by ISTE.

Ideally, Knezek and supporters of PT3 had hoped for at least $100 million for the program. In December, Knezek told eSchool News that “anything below $100 million will seriously cripple moving the program forward.”

“We were excited after the authorization [process] that the program survived, and that is bittersweet now that the funding is about half of what we need to keep the movement fueled,” he said. “We are about $14 million short of being able to fund the projects that were launched in 2000 and 2001.”

That means PT3 administrators are going to have to make some tough choices about how to stretch their funds. Some fear whole projects will be dumped.

“We are still hoping that some of the general appropriations through the Department of Education will be used to make up the difference,” said Knezek. But he acknowledges this solution is highly unlikely.

Lee said he thinks the most likely solution will be that all currently funded projects see a slight cut, rather than doing away with certain projects entirely.

Both Knezek and Lee expect a decision on how to deal with the funding shortfall in the next month or so, after President Bush presents his fiscal year 2003 budget request to Congress.

“This is the first cloud over a really stellar program,” Knezek said. “Clearly the administration’s priority [to provide block grants to states] is a good one, but there is a national crisis in teacher supply and teacher quality that is not isolated to any state and should be dealt with at the federal level.”

Transferability creates controversy

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

The measure allows states and 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 education officials to take advantage of this flexibility by using technology funds to help meet the new accountability requirements.

“Critics are right that this could hurt ed tech,” said Norris Dickard, senior associate for the Benton Foundation, which studies digital divide issues. “One state might say that all of this technology business is oversold and what is really needed is more focus on standardized tests—and transfer funds from the ed-tech budget.”

The Benton Foundation and its partner, the Center for Children and Technology, have received a grant from the Joyce Foundation to study ed-tech sustainability, Dickard said.

“We feel that part of the challenge in a tight budget environment is sustaining the vision that ed tech investments can make a difference; otherwise, [technology] will be the first program cut as some frill,” he said. “With the new ESEA, this will make leaders ‘having the vision’ all the more critical.”

The Education Department’s Bailey argued that transferability can work the other way, too, providing more funding for technology in districts that need it. He cautioned educators to look at the entire budget, which provides a record $53 billion for education.

“If you just look at a program and see a cut in funding, you’d think it was grim news for ed tech. But there are so many new technology opportunities for states and schools in this [legislation],” he said.

There are at least 15 other programs in the newly reauthorized ESEA that specifically cite technology as an acceptable use of funds, Bailey said, such as Reading First, Education of Migratory Students, and Mathematics and Science Partnerships.

“We can’t just look at the PT3 program as the only indicator of teacher preparation in ed tech,” he said. “For instance, in the Teacher and Principal Training and Recruiting Fund, technology is specifically mentioned.”

What the budget approved by Congress shows is that “we are not just focused on technology for its own sake. We really want to see how it can be used as a tool for these other subject areas,” Bailey said.

“Every education program is an opportunity for technology,” he added. “The fact that technology is included [within non-tech programs] reflects a commitment to supporting technology to achieve a more specific education goal, such as reading or math.”

Related links:
United States Senate

United States House of Representatives

U.S. Department of Education’s Budget News

Consortium for School Networking

International Society for Technology in Education

Leslie Harris and Associates

Benton Foundation