Advocates of educational technology took to Capitol Hill on Sept. 9 in an attempt to salvage more than $91 million in proposed spending cuts to what could be the nation’s only remaining technology-specific education program from the U.S. government.

Sponsored by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA), and the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), the afternoon rally in the Russell Senate Office Building was intended to dissuade elected officials in the House and Senate from moving ahead with a proposed 13-percent reduction in technology-specific education funding in 2005.

House lawmakers issued a markup of President Bush’s education budget in July. Though the bill would provide a $2 billion increase in overall education funding from the feds, it would slash the Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) block-grant program–the main source of federal funding for states to implement school technology projects–by $91 million. The president’s initial request had sought to cut the program by $14 million.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) was one of the speakers at the Sept. 9 rally in the Russell Senate Office Building. (Photo courtesy of CoSN)

Having weathered more than $100 million in ed-tech spending reductions under the Bush administration thus far, including the elimination last year of the $62.5 million Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology (PT3) program, ed-tech advocates say they’re prepared to do whatever it takes to maintain full funding for the block-grant program. If the money disappears, they say, so too will America’s hope of meeting the goals set forth in Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law.

Though Congress has been unwavering in its support of other education initiatives, including Bush’s Reading First initiative and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, ed-tech proponents contend the sweeping requirements of NCLB cannot be achieved without the widespread use of technology to facilitate student testing, manage student achievement data, and deliver supplemental educational services to students in need of targeted remediation.

“The proposed cuts send the wrong message at a time when the nation is calling on our schools to leverage technology to elevate school performance and student achievement,” said Keith Krueger, chief executive officer of CoSN. “A $91 million cut would have grave implications for the ability of states and communities to implement effective technology programs.”

Krueger’s concerns were echoed by lawmakers from both political parties, including Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Republican from Maine, who urged her colleagues in Congress to restore level funding to EETT at $692 million in 2005.

In a statement, Snowe called the program “a vital component in providing technology-based education to our school children across the country.”

Citing $9 million in grants to schools across her home state in the last three years, Snowe said the money is needed to provide essential technology services–from software and hardware training for educators to better internet communications between schools and the creation of more public-private partnerships to increase students’ access to technology.

Thanks to programs like the eRate, Snowe said, more than 92 percent of all classrooms across the country now are plugged into the web. With the addition of EETT grants, she explained, schools have moved to close the gap between the haves and have-nots, thus providing all children–regardless of race or poverty status–with the kinds of technology skills needed to solidify their future in an increasingly digital economy.

New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat, also was on hand to offer his support.

Despite the president’s proposal to trim $14 million from the program in his 2005 budget, a Bush administration official agreed that EETT was “critical” to helping implement the goals of NCLB.

Susan Patrick, director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology, said the department believes strongly in programs dedicated to technology integration and professional development.

“The block grant is very important,” she wrote in an eMail message to eSchool News. “The block grant provides funding for important priorities for educational technology: leadership technical assistance, improving professional development and teacher training to use technology, supporting eLearning, offering digital content, integrating data systems, and engaging students through the technology they love to use.”

If educators and other stakeholders want Congress to maintain full funding for the block-grant program, Patrick said, it’s up to them to express how they feel “with the decision-makers who hold the purse strings.”

In earlier interviews with eSchool News, administration officials have said their philosophy is to eliminate “duplicative” spending programs. They say they remain committed to funding ed-tech initiatives within the context of other reform efforts as well, such as using Reading First grants to pay for reading software or Improving Teacher Quality grants to fund professional development.

House Appropriations Committee members were unavailable for comment before press time.

Following the rally, lobbyists, industry leaders, and educators from across the country spread out to meet with their members of Congress in defense of ed-tech spending.

As part of the advocacy campaign, lobbyists delivered two letters–one signed by 30 companies and the other by dozens of local and national education organizations–urging Congress to restore full funding to EETT.

One of the letters states, “We have been moved to contact you because this cut not only takes aim at the only No Child Left Behind Act program dedicated solely to classroom-based technology access but also threatens state and local efforts to comply with NCLB.”

Specifically, critics say, the cuts would limit schools’ ability to provide professional development to teachers, hinder ongoing efforts to equip students with 21st-century job skills, and restrict technology access for low-income, minority, and rural students as well as for students with disabilities.

“For students seeking 21st-century job skills, these cuts are huge,” noted Sheryl Abshire, technology coordinator for the Calcasieu Parish Public Schools in Louisiana. A 30-year-veteran of education, Abshire said she couldn’t remember a time when spending for technology had been more critical.

And it isn’t just educators who are worried. Leaders from the business world say further reductions will have a negative impact on the marketplace as well.

If schools have less federal money to spend on products, they say, companies will have less incentive to sink valuable research and development dollars into building better, research-based instructional solutions for students.

The rally was coordinated by the newly formed Ed Tech Action Network (ETAN), a joint venture between CoSN and ISTE that seeks to give ed-tech advocates a direct line to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

During the rally, leaders from CoSN, ISTE, and SIIA urged educators to make their voices heard by contacting their elected officials and letting them know what these funding cuts will mean to their schools.

“There is no substitute for feet on the street here in Washington,” SIIA President Ken Wasch said.

The Senate is expected to approve its version of the education spending bill within the next few weeks. If its version is different than the one put forth by the House, the bill will go to a conference committee, where members of both bodies will be forced to hammer out a compromise.

Links:

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

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

Software & Information Industry Association
http://www.siia.net