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 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 include 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 I 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.

Among the initiatives again on the chopping block for next year is the Star Schools program, which aids in the deployment of advanced telecommunications services to 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 the 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 well shy of 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 received $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 as supplementing state accountability efforts and providing increased support for early reading initiatives–two cornerstones of NCLB.

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 some 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 ensure that all students learn to read by the end of the third grade.

But the Educational Technology State Grants program would receive just $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 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 (see “Final 2004 budget a ‘mixed blessing’ for schools, http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showstory.cfm?ArticleID=4858)–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 during his State of the Union address in January. 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.

Don Knezek, ISTE’s chief executive, 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 about $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 absence of technology-specific education programs threatens to create an environment in which students’ IT proficiency depends on what schools they attend, he said.

“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.”

U.S. Department of Education Grant Programs
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See these related links:

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

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

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