Congress on Nov. 20 passed an omnibus spending package for fiscal year 2005 that provides a $1.4 billion overall increase for education–but some $191 million, or nearly 30 percent, less for the Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) block-grant program, the primary source of federal funding for school technology.

Though overall education funding will top $57 billion this year, ed-tech advocates who spoke with eSchool News decried the final bill for failing to provide enough money to support the use of technology in the nation’s schools. EETT, which was funded last year at $691 million, will receive around $500 million in 2005.

Don Knezek, chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education, called the news “very disturbing” and said cutting EETT will carry “some very serious implications” for the nation’s schools.

In fact, he said, the final cut was much more severe than ed-tech advocates originally had envisioned. In its original budget bill, the House recommended decreasing EETT funding by $91 million, a far cry from the nearly $200 million slash ultimately applied by Congress.

Knezek said the final cuts fly in the face of everything the federal government has said with regard to its support of technology in schools. He said the current administration has repeatedly tried to justify cuts to smaller technology-specific education programs, such as the now defunct Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology program and the Star Schools program, by continuing to pump money into EETT and other NCLB-related initiatives.

But as EETT and other tech-specific education programs continue to suffer major hits, he said, questions abound with regard to the federal government’s true intentions.

During budget negotiations, lawmakers from both parties traded salvos over just how necessary a tool technology is in helping the nation’s schools meet the provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which took on even greater significance when President Bush won reelection in November. Among the bill’s many requirements, which include an increased emphasis on tracking and reporting student achievement data, is a provision that calls for all students to be technologically proficient by the eighth grade.

But the final 2005 education budget is weighted heavily in favor of other NCLB priorities, such as the president’s Reading First and Early Reading First initiatives, which received a $62 million boost this year.

Without strong federal leadership on educational technology, Knezek said, preparing today’s students for success in tomorrow’s technology-driven workforce will become increasingly difficult. A stronger federal commitment is necessary to demonstrate the correlation between technology and improved student achievement, he said.

Mary Kusler, senior legislative specialist for the American Association of School Administrators, echoed Knezek’s sentiments, adding that her organization was “really concerned about funding levels this year.” By decreasing federal funding for ed-tech programs in particular, she said, the federal government essentially has put the onus on state legislatures to come up with the money for many of these programs–not an easy task, considering the majority of states are just beginning to emerge from one of the worst fiscal shortages in recent history.

“This has to be very disappointing for educators across the country,” Kusler said. “They’re just not going to see the dollars flowing from Washington that they had expected to see.”

Melinda George, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), said such a severe cut to EETT likely will harbor dire consequences for schools. In 2003, SETDA commissioned a study that found 25 percent of the nation’s state technology directors rely solely on NCLB-related funding, including the ed-tech block grant, to provide technology access in their states’ schools.

“These funds were literally the ‘only game in town’; their school districts had no other funding earmarked specifically for technology in schools,” the report stated.

George and others believe the loss of EETT funding will force school leaders to expand their partnerships with local businesses–already a dicey proposition, given controversy over the increasing corporate influence in the nation’s schools.

Two other significant ed-tech programs survived in the final budget, though one of these was slashed in half. The Star Schools program, which received $20.5 million in 2004 to help underserved schools deploy advanced telecommunications services, will get $21 million in 2005. And the Community Technology Centers (CTC) program, which got $10 million last year to provide federally subsidized computer centers for students in low-income areas, will receive just $5 million this year.

CTC and Star Schools have been on the chopping block for the last four years, as the Bush administration has adopted the goal of consolidating federal education programs that are considered “duplicative.” In each year, the Senate has voted to preserve these programs, and they ultimately have survived.

The 2005 budget news wasn’t all bad for schools.

In fact, a number of initiatives saw funding commitments increase this year–though, in many cases, the increases were smaller than those recommended by the president, Kusler said.

Title 1, which provides financial assistance to underprivileged students, received a $500,000 boost compared with fiscal year ’04, pushing federal spending on that program to a record $12.8 billion. Bush had asked for even more, requesting that lawmakers fund the program at $13.3 billion. The Pell grants, intended to help low-income students afford college, received $458 million more than last year, for a total of nearly $12.5 billion. Again, Bush had requested more money, asking Congress to provide $12.8 billion for the program.

Though technology-specific programs seemed to suffer most this year, spending on NCLB-related initiatives increased overall. For instance, the Improving Teacher Quality program, which provides federal funding for teacher professional development, will receive a $10 million increase compared with last year, bringing that program to nearly $3 billion.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which helps schools pay for the instruction of special-needs students (story, page 7), got a $1.7 billion boost, to $11.8 billion. But funding for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program will remain flat compared with last year, at just under $1 billion.

Lawmakers also agreed to increase funding for Head Start, the nation’s early learning program, by $124 million over last year’s level, bringing total spending on that front to $6.9 billion and putting an end to widespread speculation that Head Start might be eliminated–at least for another year.

See these related links:

International Society for Technology in Education

American Association of School Administrators

State Educational Technology Directors Association