Deficits hit ed-tech programs in two big states

As financial constrictions squeeze education budgets from coast to coast, the cuts and shake-ups in education-technology programs in California and Texas are emblematic of changes under way throughout the nation.

In their 2003 budget proposals, Calif. Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, outlined plans to scale back or restructure funding for statewide education technology initiatives – programs educators say brought millions of dollars worth of computer equipment and infrastructure upgrades into California and Texas schools in recent years.

In California, as part of a $21 billion plan to decrease state spending, Davis has proposed cutting an additional $1.1 million from the Digital California Project (DCP), a statewide initiative to bring high-speed internet access to public schools via the Internet2 program. DCP already has sustained an $11 million reduction in funding.

The move is part of wholesale budget reductions proposed to offset impending deficits. California, which appropriates nearly half of its yearly discretionary funds for public education, estimates the deficit in 2003 could balloon to $35 billion. California’s financial crisis threatens to become the nation’s worst.

If Davis’ 2003-04 budget eventually is approved by the legislature the $1.1 million reduction to DCP funds would be part of a historic $5.2 billion decrease in statewide education spending over the next year and a half, including possible teacher layoffs and reduced educator training programs.

Originally funded at $32 million, the DCP already has seen its budget slashed to $21 million, said Stephanie Couch, director of communications for the project. The program is intended to foster greater collaboration via the high-speed internet between K-12 schools and institutions of higher education across the state. Efforts to connect all 58 California counties to Internet2 would be compromised if the budget cuts run any deeper, she said.

Currently, the project provides Internet2 access in 55 of the 58 counties across the state. Despite the governor’s proposed cuts, Couch said the DCP expects to have 70 percent of schools and students connected to the network by June of this year.

The project has been able to continue in light of significantly reduced state funding thanks to lower than expected networking costs, streamlined purchasing procedures, and additional eRate funding. “As a result, on the networking front, the project is holding its own,” Couch said. But, she added, the funding decrease “really limits what we can do on the content aspect of the network.”

Throughout the state, the DCP already has become an extremely popular resource among educators, touted for its video-teleconferencing services and online certification programs provided by accredited state universities. “It’s opening up new doors of collaboration that we’ve just never seen before,” Couch said. “It really expands access to critical information to bring resources back to local communities.”

Nevertheless, it will be difficult to continue to build on the services made possible by statewide Internet2 access unless more funding is made available for content improvements. “Having a big pipe with nothing in it really doesn’t [use] the full potential of the network,” Couch observed.

Still, some California educators say they’d rather see cuts in funding for technology infrastructure than for classroom programs, staffing, or salaries.

“We are in favor of keeping any budget cuts as far away from the classroom as possible,” said Dale Martin, a spokeswoman for the California Teachers Association (CTA). “Right now, the budget is a moving target.”

According to Martin, the CTA would be willing to give up some money for technology infrastructure if it meant holding onto funding for special education, low-performing schools, class-size reduction (K-3 classes under 20 students), and base reimbursement levels for main operating funds.

Marc Liebman, superintendent of the Marysville Joint Unified School District in Calif., expressed a similar view.

“I do believe that as states like California feel the budget crunch and if the federal funding for education continues to change, technology will be one of the first things to be cut,” he said. “While I am anything but happy about the reductions, there are some basic tenets of education that come into play that leave technology below the first cut of priorities.”

The need for technology improvements in California does not supercede the need for adequately compensating high-quality teachers, nor does it make up for cuts that already have been applied to critical, and often overlooked programs, such as maintenance, grounds crews, and custodial staffs, he said. That doesn’t leave much room for additional cuts in discretionary funds.

“This is the pot from which technology comes. As a result, funds and grants that support technology become a very large target when put in competition with everyday supplies, books, et cetera,” Liebman said.

In Texas, the looming budget shortfall is estimated at $10 billion. Among the proposals suggested by Gov. Perry is a restructuring of the state’s Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund (TIF) – a $1.5 billion initiative that has helped equip hundreds of Texas schools, hospitals, and libraries with technology.

The TIF program began in 1995 and was slated to run until 2005, or until it reached a $1.5 billion spending cap, whichever came first.

Currently, the program has an estimated $500 million in funding remaining. But instead of continuing to issue those funds in the form of competitive grants – where schools apply for money and then receive funds based on the size and scope of the projects – Perry’s 2003 budget would take the remaining funds and use them to increase individual technology allotments for every student in the state by $5 a student from $30 to $35.

Proponents of the governor’s plan say TIF has accomplished its purpose, but some educators expressed hope the grants would continue and even be extended.

Lisa Pearson, technology director for the Abernathy Independent School District said her schools have received at least five TIF grants in the past. So far, the district has used those funds to connect schools to the internet and get its libraries online. “Without the TIF grants we would not have nearly the technology that we do,” she said.

Pearson said she would be sad to see the program come to an end. “It would hurt the schools a lot because they won’t have the funding to do the things the state wants them to do,” she cautioned.

Steve Wentz, director of computer information services for the Alvin Independent School District expressed similar concerns. “The TIF grants probably are the only reason we have been at all able to do some of the things we’ve done,” he said.

According to Wentz, schools in Alvin have used TIF grants to build up infrastructure and, most recently, to fund state-of-the-art wireless laptop computer labs. “We’d like to see the TIF grants continue on as they are and maybe even be expanded,” Wentz said.

But having given grants to nearly 480 public libraries, 1,000 school districts, and more than 1,221 medical facilities statewide, Kathy Walt, a spokeswoman for Gov. Perry, said the program has run its course.

“It’s like the parents buying their teenager a new car and then having the kids ask: ‘Where’s the gas money,'” she said. “The program was never intended as an ongoing entitlement program.”

While revamping how funds from the TIF will be distributed requires a change in state law, Walt said the governor has the best interests of schools in mind.

“The governor thinks this is the highest and best use of the remaining money in the TIF balance,” she said. “It frees up technology allotment money for schools to use as best needed.”

But proponents for the survival of TIF grants are skeptical.

Considering that most schools in Texas enroll less than 500 students, said Ron Cravey, executive director of the Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA), tacking on an additional $5 for every student will at best provide an additional $2,500 to spend on technology in every school. “You can’t buy a whole lot of technology with that,” he said.

According to Cravey, TIF was formed to aid schools serving low-income populations. “The idea was not to give the same amount of money to everybody,” he argued. In fact, some Texas educators wonder if Perry’s real goal is to quietly cut approximately $182 million from the state’s 2003-04 budget.

According to a document posted Feb. 19 to the TCEA web site, Perry’s budget proposal will decrease the amount of funding given to public schools by $182 million because $224 million of the TIF money already targeted to schools for 2003 will not be allocated, and will be used instead to replace technology allotment funds currently coming from the state’s general fund.

Perry’s office disputes those allegations, claiming that all $500 million will be distributed to schools across the state.

Perry’s plans to reorganize TIF funding also could neutralize two bills pending in the state legislature that would extend the duration of TIF to 2009. But the governor’s representative said restructuring the current program will have no impact on extending it. “Whether [Texas lawmakers] want to continue the program is still up for the state legislature to decide,” she said.

California and Texas aren’t the only states contemplating changes in education funding as a way to meet increasing budget deficits. Fourteen states have exempted K-12 spending from cuts in 2003, according to groups representing governors and state budget officials. But in the other 36 states, the outlook for 2003 is a deepening of last year’s cuts.

In 2002, 37 states cut their budgets by more than $12.8 billion. For 2003, 24 states already have announced plans to reduce their budgets by more than $18.5 billion. “Percentage-based cuts in education are affecting both public and private schools nationwide. We have to rethink and reprioritize in light of new fiscal realities and expectations,” said Rick Bauer, chief information officer for the Hill School in Pennsylvania. “School technology managers have to explain and support the educational case for technology use as never before, which is a good thing.”


Gov. Rick Perry

Gov. Gray Davis

Digital California Project

Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund

Article: “Technology Funding Might Lose $182 million”

Texas Computer Education Association

The National Governor’s Association

The National Association of School Budget Officers

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