Four technology-specific initiatives totaling $134 million are among the many education programs still at risk as House and Senate lawmakers try to resolve their differences over 2004 spending.

Three of these four programs were preserved in the Senate’s version of the education spending bill but were cut in the House version, which more closely follows President Bush’s 2004 budget request.

The fourth program, Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology (PT3)–a $62.5 million effort that promotes partnerships between colleges of education and K-12 schools to help new teachers integrate technology into their instruction–appears in neither the House nor the Senate appropriations bills.

Losing PT3 would deal a blow to schools across the country, many of which have struggled to recruit high-quality teachers who come to the classroom prepared to integrate technology into the curriculum, said Don Knezek, chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).

The Bush administration says PT3 is unnecessary because the federal Improving Teacher Quality program already provides nearly $3 billion to support teacher preparation and professional development initiatives.

But Knezek, who served as director of ISTE’s National Center for Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology before being named chief executive of ISTE, said he wasn’t concerned so much about the loss of the funding itself as he was about the loss of ideals that mostly likely would result from the absence of federal leadership on this topic.

“K-12 education is a system,” he said. “We need to take a systematic approach, and that includes recruiting highly qualified teachers who know how to use technology.”

Still, ed-tech lobbyists have not given up on the program entirely. In September, the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) circulated an Action Alert to its members hoping to drum up enough support to revive PT3 during the negotiations process.

It isn’t just PT3 that is in trouble. Keith Krueger, executive director of CoSN, said the situation is indicative of funding shortages across the board.

“Overall funding levels [for school technology] are not growing,” Krueger said. “For the most part, [Congress is] not even funding these programs up to their authorization levels.”

At a time when nearly every state and district faces budget cuts of historic proportions, now is not the time for the federal government to shrink from its commitment to educational technology, he said.

Of the two overall education spending bills in negotiation at press time, the Senate’s version is the more supportive of technology. Passed by the Senate in September, it would provide funding at current-year, or slightly lower, levels for a number of programs the House and the Bush administration would prefer to cut.

For instance, the Senate bill preserves the Community Technology Centers program, an initiative to help build computer centers in low-income areas, at $20 million in 2004. Although that’s more than a third less than the $32 million the program received in 2003, it’s still better than the preference in the House, where lawmakers voted to cut the program.

The same can be said for the Star Schools initiative, which supports the development of telecommunications services and audio-visual equipment in underserved schools. Last year, the program received $27.5 million. This year, however, the Senate reduced support to $20.5 million, while the House cut its funding entirely.

In the case of Ready to Teach, which works with public broadcasters to provide educational and professional development resources to schools, Senate lawmakers increased funding to $14.4 million, up from $12 million last year, while the House again sided with President Bush and voted to extinguish the program.

On the bright side, both chambers agreed to fund the Regional Technology in Education Consortia, or RTECs, at $10 million–the same amount as last year. Bush’s budget proposed the elimination of this program as well.

Funding for the Education Technology Block Grant program–now the main source of federal funding for school technology–would remain steady for the third year in a row, at $695 million in both versions of the education spending bill.

But “any time you level-fund a program, you’re essentially giving it a cut, because you’re not accounting for inflation,” said Mary Kusler, legislative specialist for the American Association of School Administrators.

In defense of proposed cuts to technology-specific programs, the Bush administration argues that the president’s 2004 budget actually calls for a $2.4 billion increase in overall education funding.

In fact, the president’s $2.23 trillion budget for fiscal year 2004 provides $53 billion to the Education Department (ED) specifically–the “largest dollar increase for any domestic agency,” according to Education Secretary Rod Paige.

For the most part, those increases are at best indirectly related to technology. For instance, Bush has asked for nearly $1 billion more in Title I funds, as well as another $1 billion for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which Congress hopes to reauthorize later in the year. The administration also has requested an additional $1.9 billion increase for Pell Grants to help low-income students afford college.

But when it comes to ed-tech funding, activists say, this has been a year of lowered expectations.

“From the technology perspective specifically, people are not expecting to see much,” Kusler said.

The Bush administration says the increased flexibility of NCLB means school districts can take funds earmarked for other purposes and apply them toward technology, if local school leaders so choose. But ed-tech advocates at CoSN and ISTE question whether the federal government is providing enough support to ensure that schools are up to the task at hand, which includes meeting the provisions of the new federal law.

When asked whether the government has provided enough resources for schools to meet the challenges of NCLB, ISTE’s Knezek said there’s no question the funds fall well short of the need. “Go into any Title I school and look at what it truly would take,” he said. “[Lawmakers are] not even coming close.”

In whatever way the debate shakes out, lawmakers no doubt will try to avoid the legislative gridlock that left ED and other federal agencies without a 2003 budget until February. But even that might prove difficult, because Congress will be forced to hammer out a consensus on domestic spending while working simultaneously to come to terms on an $87 billion supplemental funding request to help rebuild Baghdad and other Iraqi cities still reeling in the wake of war.

Washington’s fiscal 2004 officially began Oct. 1, but federal operations are supported by resolutions continuing the funding of the previous fiscal year until the new budget becomes law.

Links:

Consortium for School Networking
http://www.cosn.org

International Society for Technology in Education
http://www.iste.org

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

American Association for School Administrators
http://www.aasa.org