In one of the most vivid examples yet of how constricting state budgets have come to bear on school technology, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) on Sept. 4 announced a major reorganization that includes the elimination of at least 200 jobs and the liquidation of its educational technology division, long considered a national bellwether for school technology planning and programs.

The cuts seem to forebode difficult changes across the country as an economic downturn of historic proportions continues to take its toll on school technology spending from coast to coast.

For Texans, the news calls into question the future of millions of dollars in technology-centered programs and services meant to bolster everything from educator training to student achievement.

On the chopping block, according to the agency’s communications director, Debbie Ratcliffe, is the Texas-State Telecommunications Access Resource (T-STAR) network, a statewide initiative that provides television communications and videoconferencing to school districts, regional education service centers, and the agency itself.

In the past, according to the program’s web site, Texas students and educators have turned to T-STAR to expand their curriculum and educational resources through satellite-delivered, for-credit courses, curriculum-enhancement programming, electronic field trips, and professional development teleconferences from programming providers across the country.

Ratcliffe said educators across the state relied heavily on the network’s 200-plus hours of professional development courses, including programs for Standards Certificate renewal. TEA officials say the only way the program will continue is if it receives additional funding from outside the agency.

But it isn’t just T-STAR that’s in jeopardy. Ratcliffe said the fate of a number of state ed-tech programs and initiatives hangs in the balance. “There are definitely some programs that probably will not continue because we just don’t have the staff,” she said. “The fate of some of these programs is still in flux.” Most of these decisions will not be made until the reorganization is complete.

Jim Hirsch, associate superintendent for technology services at the Plano, Texas, Independent School District, said the extent of the cuts goes beyond anything he had envisioned.

“This was totally unexpected by most of the [school district chief technology officers] in Texas,” he said. “We were aware of cuts that were mandated for TEA but were never invited to be part of any discussion that would have abolished the entire department.”

Hirsch said he was concerned about a number of initiatives, including the state’s recently launched virtual school pilot program, as well a new web-based technology planning tool. Under former ed-tech director Anita Givens’ leadership, the state recently had developed a web-based tool to help school districts write and update their technology plans.

According to Hirsch, the tool provided a common template, forcing districts to address all the elements of a well-rounded technology plan. It also provided the state with up-to-date information on what the districts were doing with technology.

Despite the dissolution of a stand-alone technology division, Ratcliffe said support for technology at TEA has far from evaporated. In its restructuring, the agency moved several of the division’s former leaders, including Givens, to its textbook division. Other staffers were transferred to the curriculum and instructional units, Ratcliffe said.

TEA bills the reshuffling as an attempt to integrate technology better throughout all facets of the agency. TEA officials say they transferred a number of former technology staffers to the textbook division because they believe technology will play an increasingly vital role in the way students access texts and other educational resources in the future.

“We decided technology should no longer be viewed as separate and apart, but that it should be fully integrated into the core of the agency,” Ratcliffe said in support of the move.

One technology initiative Texas plans to proceed with is an online network that allows districts across the state to swap excess textbooks, so students in one school don’t go without books while storage rooms in another are crammed with extra materials, Ratcliffe said.

Still, some educators question whether the Lone Star State–long heralded as a national role model for school technology planning and integration, and home to several giants in the technology industry from Dell Inc. to Texas Instruments–will continue to boast both the leadership and commitment necessary to remain a front-runner.

“Texas had one of the strongest technology divisions within a state agency, and now that it’s gone, you have to wonder where that leadership is going to come from,” Hirsch said. “School districts have long worked toward integrating technology into each curricular area but still maintained an instructional technology group to provide overall leadership. The same need exists for state education agencies. … Without a leadership group, who maintains standards for each group to follow? Who minimizes duplication of efforts? Who advises on appropriate development?”

He concluded, “This pretty much demonstrates a complete turnaround in how the state of Texas is supporting educational technology in schools.”

Operating today at only half the size it did in back in 1994, TEA has struggled to find ways to make do with less. This year will be especially tough, however, because the latest round of cuts slashed more than a quarter of the agency’s operating budget and cut the staff from 860 to 660 employees, Ratcliffe said.

“Texas is going to try hard to maintain its momentum, but the reality is we’re going to have to do it with a lot less resources,” she said. “Texas has always been a leader and we’d like to stay a leader, but we’ll have to figure out new ways to make this work. We’ve still got to get the same job done.”

And that job is getting harder in Texas, where many educators are still reeling from Gov. Rick Perry’s decision earlier in the year to discontinue the Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund (TIF)–a $1.5 billion grant initiative that helped furnish hundreds of state schools, hospitals, and libraries with technology.

Originally, TIF, which began in 1995, was slated to run until 2005 or until it reached a $1.5 billion spending cap, whichever came first. However, with an estimated $500 million in funding remaining, Perry opted to stop the program and use the leftover cash to increase individual technology allotments for every student in the state by $5 per student, from $30 to $35.

The decision dealt a blow to many educators whose schools had relied on the grant money–originally doled out based on the size and scope of individual projects–to finance such investments as wireless computer labs and school-wide internet connections. At the time, many educators–especially those working in small schools–argued an extra $5 a student would hardly be enough to cover the costs associated with such purchases.

From a national perspective, the problems occurring in Texas are emblematic of those in other states. As eSchool News reported in May, budget cuts have left schools from Oregon to Massachusetts without the money to cover teachers’ salaries or even to buy textbooks. Still, a number of states–most notably Maine and Michigan–have announced plans to forge ahead with ambitious, one-to-one K-12 computing initiatives, despite budget cuts.

As the budget crunch worsens, however, national education leaders are leery of a lack of technology leadership and support at the state level.

Melinda George, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, said she agrees with TEA’s assessment that technology no longer should be viewed as an add-on, but rather as a fully integrated part of the curriculum. But George questioned the agency’s decision to eliminate its stand-alone division, saying it would create “water-downed” leadership, where too few leaders would be expected to take on too many responsibilities.

“You need experts and champions in educational technology,” George said. “All of the states are being hit hard in terms of budgets and programs. …But [Texas] appears to be making a huge statement I’m not so sure it intended on making. States really need to back up these programs.”

Links:

Texas Education Agency
http://www.tea.state.tx.us

State Educational Technology Directors Association
http://www.setda.org