The newly reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is forcing state departments of education to change the way they make grants for technology, and state officials say complying with the new law’s provisions will delay the flow of technology dollars to schools this year.

In previous years, grant dollars for technology from the Technology Literacy Challenge Fund (TLCF) were distributed to state departments of education in the spring. Federal law mandated that states had to distribute the money to districts via competitive grants, said John Bailey, director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Education Technology.

Under the reauthorized ESEA, states now must distribute half of these dollars to local districts according to Title I formula.

“The formula [approach] is a change from the way TLCF funds were originally distributed,” said Bailey. “Originally, the president’s plan was to send all the funds out via a competitive grant, but Congress quickly came to an agreement on the 50-50 split.”

State education officials are accustomed to periodic reauthorizations, but some say this one will be particularly difficult to implement because it came much later than in previous years. President Bush signed the legislation into law Jan. 8, and appropriations for the law were not approved by Congress until just before the new year.

Bailey attributes this delay to three factors: congressional gridlock, the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center towers, and the Capitol Hill anthrax attacks that displaced scores of House and Senate staffers.

“This was a hotly debated bill for a long time, and both [the events of] September 11 and the anthrax attacks delayed it as well,” he said.

The result: big changes in a relatively short amount of time for many state-level education departments.

“As you can imagine, this is a huge overhaul. We have to see how we can update our entire eGrants online [grant-giving] system to align with the new 50-percent [formula] rules,” said Priscilla Richardson, director of consolidated federal programs for the Washington state education department.

Richardson said that in normal years, Washington school officials fill out their applications for funds on the web between May and July. State officials approve the applications during July and August and send the money to the districts in time for the new school year.

According to Richardson, the Washington education department can assure districts they will have their technology grants in time to start distributing funds to schools in September, but she acknowledges that “exact timelines are unknown for us right now.”

Education officials in other states, such as Alabama, cannot make similar assurances.

According to Melinda Maddox, coordinator of the Alabama Department of Education’s Office of Technology Initiatives, “This [school] year, our schools will not see any federal funding” for technology.

That’s because Alabama awarded last year’s TLCF money to districts as soon as the state received it, in spring 2001. And schools aren’t likely to get this year’s money until fall at the earliest.

“Many states award [their grants] in the fall, but we do it as soon as we receive the funds,” said Maddox. Districts could have elected to carry over last year’s funds to this school year, she said, but most spent the money as soon as they received it.

That leaves Alabama districts that rely on federal dollars to support ongoing technology initiatives in a bind this school year.

“They’ll have to put [those programs] on hold until funding comes through, or come up with local funds to pay for them,” said Maddox. In many cases, the solution might be “just not purchasing any new hardware this year.”

Further delaying the disbursement of funds is the fact that states must report their Title I enrollment figures to the U.S. Department of Education (ED) after April 1.

“Since [federal] technology money is allocated based on the number of Title I students, we have to wait to receive those numbers” before disbursing the funding to states, said ED spokesman David Thomas, who added that this problem “isn’t unique to the technology program—it impacts a number of federal programs” this year.

Most state-level education officials say ED has done a good job of keeping them up to date on new developments regarding technology funding.

So far, ED has sent summaries of the legislation to every state and conducted conference calls with 75 percent of all states, said ED’s Bailey. A special eMail address has been set up to answer questions, and state-level education officials are invited to a Washington, D.C. conference at the end of February designed to answer any additional questions.

“We have read [the new legislation] but are waiting to meet with officials from [ED] at the end of February before we make any firm decisions on distribution of funding in Pennsylvania,” said Julie Tritt Schell, director of that state’s Office of Educational Technology.

Schell said Pennsylvania does not anticipate any unusual delays in the release of funds, but she said she couldn’t indicate specific dates. “Our timeline is dependent on whether we have districts complete an application for formula funding and a [request for proposals] for the competitive funding. Our goal is to have all funding released by fall 2002,” she said.

According to Maddox, the delay in the ESEA reauthorization places most states on a very tight timeline.

“We’ve got to get a state technology plan ready and get our state board to approve it, which takes a while. Then [ED] has to review it, and if something is missing it comes back to us,” she said.

Grants and funding experts say many districts will need to make adjustments to account for what might be a significant delay in technology dollars from the federal government this year.

“I think the whole outcome is that [schools] will have to look to other places for money,” said eSchool News columnist and independent grant writing consultant Deborah Ward.

If states don’t find out about funding until late summer or early fall, Ward said the 2002-03 school year could be a “washout,” because some schools might not receive federal monies until well into the school year.

“Schools are just going to have to adjust their calendars to correspond with the availability of funds,” she said. “For instance, they may have to do a project for six months instead of the planned year.”

Links:

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

Washington Department of Education
http://access.wa.gov/education/index1.aspL1=Education

Alabama Department of Education
http://www.alsde.edu

Pennsylvania Department of Education
http://www.pde.psu.edu