Federal education spending would receive a near-$2 billion boost next year, according to the $2.4 trillion budget proposed by President Bush Feb.2. Like Bill Murray’s character in the movie Groundhog Day, though, supporters of educational technology must feel like they’ve seen this all before: For the fourth straight year, the president’s budget would eliminate a number of technology-specific education programs.

In all, U.S. Department of Education (ED) spending is recommended at $57 billion in fiscal year 2005. Bush’s proposed increases included an additional $1 billion apiece for both disabled students and poor school districts.

Despite a three-percent increase in overall ED funding, however, some 38 education initiatives are slated for termination, including at least four technology-specific programs totaling more than $54 million.

Supporters of Bush’s budget proposal say the spike in overall funding reaffirms the administration’s commitment to educating disadvantaged students and helping schools meet the provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), bolstering funding for Title 1 grants and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for a second straight year. But critics contend the proposal falls short of Bush’s promise to prepare the nation’s students for success in a technology-driven, 21st-century workforce.

“In our view, this budget represents a major step back from the federal government’s interest in and commitment to ensuring that our nation’s educators and students gain access to the tremendous learning resources available online and the tools and skills needed to compete successfully in the 21st century’s job market,” said a joint statement issued by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) and the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN)–two organizations dedicated to promoting better use of technology in America’s schools.

“ISTE and CoSN, who collectively represent tens of thousands of educators nationwide, are extremely disappointed by the administration’s proposals to eliminate a number of critical and long-standing federal programs that support preservice teacher technology training, distance learning, and community technology access,” the groups said

Among the initiatives on the chopping block for next year is the Star Schools program, a nationwide project to aid in the deployment of advanced telecommunications services and audiovisual equipment in underserved schools. In 2004, the program received $20.5 million, nearly $7 million short of what it was allotted in 2003. Bush has proposed cutting this program for the last four years.

Also slated for elimination in 2005 is the Community Technology Centers program, which provides federally subsidized computer centers for students in low-income areas. The program received $10 million in 2004–just half of what the Senate recommended, and more than two-thirds less than the $32.3 million it received in 2003.

Under Bush’s proposal, Ready to Teach–a federal initiative that helps public broadcasters provide educational and professional development resources to schools–also would go unfunded. The program received more than $14 million from Congress in 2004, up from $12 million in 2003.

The Regional Technology in Education Consortia, or RTECs, would meet a similar fate. In 2004, the RTECs faired somewhat better, receiving $10 million from Congress despite Bush’s plan to strike the program from the budget last year.

Not everyone is discouraged by the cuts. In a press briefing unveiling the 2005 budget request, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige called the proposal “historic,” lauding the president for eliminating certain programs in hopes of reallocating nearly $1.4 billion for more effective, higher-priority activities such supplementing state accountability efforts and providing increased support for early reading initiatives–two cornerstones of NCLB.

“President Bush has once again provided record support for our nation’s students, parents, schools, and teachers,” Paige said. “In the last three years, we have witnessed watershed moments in education. I believe that one day we will look back on these years and say that this was the turning point.”

Paige said the United States spends more on education per year than any other nation with the exception of Switzerland–a commitment the administration seeks to uphold with its 2005 budget request. If Congress adheres to the president’s request, ED for the second year in a row would receive the largest dollar increase of any federal agency, increasing federal spending in America’s schools by more than 61 percent over the three-year period since Bush took office.

Besides $1 billion increases to Title I and IDEA, Bush has proposed nearly $823 million more for Pell Grants to give additional underserved students the chance to attend college, and his $1.1 billion proposal for Reading First State Grants would amount to a $101 million increase compared with 2004–all part of his plan to support NCLB’s promise that all students learn to read by the end of the third grade.

In support of the high-quality teacher provisions of NCLB, Bush also has requested $2.9 billion next year for Improving Teacher Quality State Grants, which are intended to give states and school districts more flexibility in the strategies they employ to select high-quality teachers for core subject areas.

But the Educational Technology State Grants program would receive $692 million next year, about $3 million less than in 2004. The program, which is the main federal initiative supporting the integration of technology into classroom instruction, has not received an increase in funding since 2002.

Though Bush’s 2005 spending plan might disappoint school technology leaders–many of whom are still reeling from lawmakers’ recent decision to eliminate the Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology program, a $62.5 million effort promoting partnerships between colleges of education and K-12 schools to help new teachers integrate technology into their instruction, from the 2004 budget–the Bush administration contends it is making headway in preparing the nation’s students for success in the 21st century.

At the crux of Bush’s plan is $333 million in funding for a new initiative called Jobs for the 21st Century, which the president unveiled last month during his State of the Union address. The goal of the program is to improve the quality of education in the nation’s high schools and colleges to better prepare students for success in higher education and the new information-age workplace, the White House said.

Primarily, Bush wants to expand access to postsecondary education for low-income students, while fostering a new generation of job training partnerships between community colleges and employers in industries with the most demand for skilled workers.

Under his proposal, the program would include $100 million for a new Striving Readers plan to improve the reading skills of teenage students who are reading at or below grade level; $120 million for a new Secondary Education Mathematics initiative to help ensure that high school math teachers are highly qualified and can meet the needs of struggling students; $40 million for an Adjunct Teacher Corps that would enable well-qualified individuals from business, technology, industry, and other areas to serve as adjunct high school teachers; $12 million to increase the number of states in the State Scholars program; $33 million to provide an additional Pell Grant award of up to $1,000 to low-income students who are State Scholars and take a rigorous high school curriculum; and $28 million to ensure that teachers in low-income schools are qualified to teach Advanced Placement courses.

Don Knezek, chief executive officer of ISTE, said that although the Jobs for the 21st Century initiative addresses some critical skills–including providing additional support for students who struggle with reading and math–the program offers no guarantee that students will leave school with the kinds of information technology (IT) skills needed to succeed in a 21st-century economy.

“Almost a third of that funding goes to helping struggling readers,” he said. “While these are important skills, what we still don’t see is a commitment to the future.”

In a discussion of the budget figures Feb. 2, Undersecretary of Education Eugene Hickok told reporters the U.S. now has an average per pupil expenditure of approximately $8,745. He added that federal funding has always been merely an adjunct to spending efforts at the state and local levels, which traditionally represent well over 90 percent of the nation’s education expenditures.

But Knezek said state and local educators rely on the federal government to provide leadership on such important issues as IT planning and integration. The Bush administration says its budget gives educators more leeway when it comes to spending federal dollars, but Knezek said the absence of technology-specific education programs threatens to create an environment in which students’ IT proficiency is dependent upon what schools they attend.

“We’re going to see pockets of future focus and development in education,” he predicted. “We know we are losing ground in terms of students who feel that learning is engaging. We also know technology can change that.”

Links:

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

President Bush’s 2005 education budget
http://www.ed.gov/news/pressreleases/2004/02/02022004.html

The White House
http://www.whitehouse.gov

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

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