With state budget deficits soaring to near record levels, school technology programs from coast to coast are being slashed as policy makers and school leaders struggle to make do with sharply limited resources.

California, Indiana, Oregon, Texas, and West Virginia are some of the many states where lawmakers and school officials have been forced to cut back or eliminate programs that supply new computers, internet access, and instructional resources to K-12 students.

To be sure, technology isn’t the only budget line item being cut. Art and foreign language classes, school counselors and nurses, field trips and athletic programs, and even core subject area teachers and textbooks also are on the chopping block.

But given the tough new requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), some observers fear cuts to critical technology infrastructure programs will limit educators’ ability to track and analyze student performance data, making it difficult to meet the law’s intended goal.

“Our guess is it’s going to be another really tough year for technology in schools,” said Mike Griffith, a policy analyst with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

Griffith said the current budget crisis represents a unique scenario for schools, because it marks the first time in history where a severe economic downturn will directly affect the use of computers in education.

Judging from the fallout, educators will be able to tell just where society places the importance of technology in relation to teacher salaries, school supplies, textbooks, and other basic necessities, he said.

In many states, the cuts already are under way.

In Wisconsin, where budget shortfalls are expected to exceed $3.2 billion over the next two years, Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, has asked the state legislature to cut short the state’s Technology for Educational Achievement (TEACH) program.

According to TEACH budget and policy analyst Mahrie Peterson, at risk is approximately $35 million per year in block grants and an additional $4 million in training resources used to boost technology infrastructures and school computer access throughout the state.

While the program originally was pegged as a five-year initiative, Peterson said those involved had hoped the success of TEACH would lead to its expansion. Given the current budget crisis, however, Doyle made it clear that the program had run its course, she said.

The initiative won’t be scrapped entirely. Doyle’s proposal does provide for limited funding for the Telecommunications Access portion of TEACH, which currently delivers high-speed internet and video access to more than 90 percent of the state’s K-12 schools.

Doyle explained the cuts by saying the state had backed itself into a corner.

“Right now, Wisconsin faces a $452 million deficit. For the next two years, we’re looking at a shortfall of $3.2 billion. It is the worst deficit that any Wisconsin governor has ever faced,” he said in his State of the State address. “Other states have patched their shortfalls by tapping into rainy-day funds. Even at the height of the boom, Wisconsin was one of only five states that failed to set revenues aside for a rainy day. Now a storm has broken out, and we’re left without an umbrella.”

In West Virginia, Democratic Gov. Bob Wise has proposed cutting nearly $5 million for the purchase of computers and other technology equipment used to support the state’s 281,000 students.

According to Jack McClanahan, assistant state superintendent for administrative services, school technology spending will endure a brutal 50-percent cut compared with last year’s spending. “Any time you have budget cuts, you have to make concessions and adjustments,” he said. “We’ll have to prioritize the money we have with the needs we have.”

McClanahan said he was most troubled by $2 million in potential deductions to the West Virginia Education Information System (WVEIS), a 13-year-old technology infrastructure that has allowed educators to collect data on student achievement, standardized test scores, and school financial records, including administrative costs. Were it not for WVEIS, the state would have a difficult time in meeting the rigid reporting and accountability demands established by NCLB, McClanahan said.

“We’ll keep [WVEIS] running. But there’s no question, things are going to get tight,” he said. “That’s why we’re taking this thing back to the governor.”

State education officials have said they plan to lobby for more funding before a final budget is passed. Still, a $250 million estimated shortfall headed into 2004 doesn’t bode well for their chances, McClanahan said.

In Oregon, the fallout from a severe statewide budget crunch has all but booted technology from its place on the high-priority list. As many as half of the state’s school districts are cutting days or even weeks of instruction off of the school year, and at least 1,100 teacher positions have been eliminated so far.

Scott Robinson, chief technology officer for the Portland Public Schools—where educators have agreed to work 10 days without pay so students can stay in school until the summer—said impending budget cuts have contributed to a cloud of frustration that looms over the 100-school district.

Lack of funding means some of the district’s most needy buildings will be equipped with computers that are more than seven or eight years old, virtual dinosaurs in today’s world of high-speed Pentium processors and extended RAM upgrades. What’s worse, Robinson said, geriatric systems will make it almost impossible for some schools to carry out the implementation of Oregon’s Technology Enhanced Student Assessment (TESA) program.

So far, only about 20 percent of schools throughout the state are connected to the system, which administers reading and mathematics assessments to students electronically. When it was launched two years ago, educators predicted TESA eventually would save the state millions of dollars in paper and data collection costs while meeting the increased accountability demands of NCLB.

Now, it appears those advantages will have to wait. “It is extremely challenging when you know that you are expected to do more, but with less resources,” Robinson said. “The word ‘data-driven’ means better collection, dissemination, and use of data, which implies a stronger investment in technology systems.”

The poorer schools, he said, are at a distinct disadvantage because they lack the saving graces of charitable contributions from wealthy families and other alternative means of fund-raising. “The schools that have trouble raising money within the community really are going to get left behind,” he said. “Many districts—not just Portland—aren’t going to be able to perform the necessary upgrades.”

About 70,000 students in Oregon already have lost access to an internet-based research database that lets them tap into articles from newspapers, magazines, and periodicals around the world.

The database got off the ground in Oregon three years ago, when librarians from public schools, city libraries, and universities banded together to buy access to the system for all.

But after three years, the initial state grant expired. Organizers made a new plan to collect fees from all of the state’s 198 school districts—but 44 districts containing 70,000 students said they didn’t have the money, so they lost the service.

Many of the districts that could not come up with the 45-cents-per-student fee are located in areas without big city libraries or university libraries to turn to.

“Many districts have had to eliminate magazines from their libraries. We’re in dismal shape in this state,” said Gary Ross, media manager for the educational service district in Lane County. The database “is a reasonable alternative to having that magazine in your hand.”

In California, as part of a $21 billion plan to decrease state spending, Democratic Gov. Gray 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—despite the fact that DCP already had sustained an $11 million reduction in funding.

The move is part of wholesale budget reductions proposed to offset an impending $35 billion budget deficit—the nation’s worst—and would add to a historic $5.2 billion reduction in statewide education spending over the next year and a half, including possible teacher layoffs and reduced educator training programs.

Currently, DCP provides high-speed internet access in 55 of the state’s 58 counties. Despite the governor’s proposed cuts, officials expect to have 70 percent of schools and students connected to the network by June of this year, said Stephanie Couch, director of communications for the project.

Although a $1.1 million reduction might seem like small potatoes in the face of a multibillion-dollar deficit, some experts contend California has only begun to experience the pains of a budget crisis that could harbor severe long-term effects for its school technology programs.

On April 23, Lightspeed Systems—a company that helps schools and other public institutions build better internet-related infrastructures—released its annual “California School District Survey,” which paints a dire picture of the state’s ed-tech programs in years to come.

The survey, which polled more than 50 California superintendents and school board members, found that proposed budget cuts have hit school technology programs hard. In fact, according to the study, a third of the state’s school districts already have cut or frozen technology staff.

Even more unsettling, 36 percent of survey respondents had made plans to delay technology purchases for schools, while another 27 percent anticipated canceling school technology orders altogether.

John Jordan, assistant director to Lightspeed’s Education Solutions Program, said company officials are traveling throughout the state to help schools prioritize their technology needs and look for alternative sources of funding. “What you really need is a sort of focused solution,” he said. “Be cost-conscious, and look for those solutions that deliver just what you need.”

Jordan’s advice applies equally well to other areas of school budgets. Aside from pulling the plug on large-scale technology grant programs and putting new computer orders on hold, many schools nationwide have begun to downsize staff, cut basic services—including custodial employees—and charge additional fees for school busing.

The National Education Association has collected examples of how states and school districts have responded to the worst fiscal crisis many have faced since World War II. Here are some examples: In the high-poverty city of Baltimore, the budget crunch has seen the termination of a national pilot program designed to help parents work their way off welfare by assisting in after-school programs for their children.

In Hawaii, a newly erected library stands empty because the state did not have enough money to pay for the books that would fill its shelves. In Massachusetts, 17 school districts thus far have been denied funds to fix leaky roofs, broken boilers, and overcrowded classrooms, and some districts are charging students a fee ranging from $200 to $250 for school bus transportation. In Boston, the desperation has led to the closure of five schools.

In Oklahoma, 1,000 students no longer have a ride to school, as bus routes have been cut to deal with the shortages. More than 1,000 teacher positions and hundreds of support staff have been eliminated. In fact, money is so tight that some educators have doubled as school bus drivers, stepped in to mop dirty floors, and even donned hair nets to help serve school lunches.

Utah, which has the largest class sizes in the nation, now ranks 50th in per-pupil spending and is facing an additional 100,000 students over the next 10 years.

The list of desperate stories goes on—and increases almost daily—but no one is more intimate with the urgency of this problem than the educators whose task remains unchanged, despite fewer resources.

“Unless state or federal legislators tell us to close our doors, we’re going to have school for children,” said Jim Hirsch, associate superintendent for technology at the Plano, Texas, Independent School District. “Once the students do show up, however, the learning experiences will change if budget cuts continue on their current pace.”

Links:

Education Commission of the States
http://www.ecs.org

National Education Association
http://www.nea.org

Lightspeed Systems
http://www.lightspeedsystems.com