President Bush’s 2006 budget proposal asks Congress to cut more than $1 billion in total education spending and would eliminate entirely the $500 million Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) state block-grant program, the primary source of federal funding for school technology.

The $2.5 trillion proposal, announced Feb. 7, includes a 1 percent across-the-board reduction for all discretionary spending programs and would earmark $56 billion for the U.S. Department of Education (ED) in 2006, down from more than $57 billion in 2005. If the president’s budget is approved by Congress, it would mark the end of five consecutive years of increases in education spending.

Of the 48 education programs slated for elimination in 2006, none stands to affect the ed-tech community more than the loss of EETT. Still reeling from a last-minute decision by Congress to cut EETT by nearly 30 percent in 2005–from $692 million in fiscal year 2004 to $500 million this year–several ed-tech advocates nationwide condemned Bush’s proposed dismantling of the program as “short-sighted” and criticized the administration for failing to provide the leadership and funding necessary to support the use of technology in the nation’s schools.

The Bush administration says its funding plan for schools focuses on doing away with substandard initiatives in favor of programs that work and practices the kind of fiscal restraint necessary to begin chipping away at the mounting federal deficit, which Bush has vowed to cut in half over the next four years.

Critics say the elimination of EETT and other technology-specific education programs flies in the face of everything this administration has said regarding the important role technology must play in fostering widespread student achievement under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), implemented by Bush in 2001 and touted during his State of the Union address as a top concern during his second term.

“These proposed cuts send precisely the wrong message at the wrong time,” said Jan Van Dam, a retired assistant superintendent and board president for the International Society for Technology in Education. “Educators around the country are grappling with implementing No Child Left Behind, capitalizing on every resource at their disposal to increase student achievement, student learning, teaching skills, and efficiency. This funding proposal is both counterproductive and ultimately tragic, in that it deprives educators of tools they so desperately need and students of opportunities they so desperately desire.”

Bush’s proposed cuts to the education budget closely mirror figures inadvertently leaked to the public through a White House memorandum last June (see story: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/PFshowstory.cfm?ArticleID=5172). At the time of the leak, administration officials repeatedly denied that the memo–which pegged 2006 education funding at $55.9 billion–was anything but a hypothetical model for officials to work from as they began gathering data about their needs for the coming year, adding that decisions regarding the president’s 2006 budget “would not be made for some time.”

Now, as those reductions take shape almost precisely as outlined last June, ed-tech advocates nationwide worry that their worst fears are in danger of being realized.

“The administration’s elimination of the EETT program will spell the end of meaningful technology training for the 2,600 teachers in Calcasieu Parish Public Schools, will result in greatly reduced technology opportunities for the 35,000 students who attend our schools, and will cause me to eliminate up to six full-time technology positions. The real-world impact of these cuts is extremely devastating,” said Sheryl Abshire, instructional technology coordinator for this Louisiana district.

In defense of Bush’s budget blueprint, ED contends that most schools today are farther along on the technology curve than they were several years ago, a reality that negates the need for “a state formula grant program targeted specifically on (and limited to) the effective integration of technology into schools and classrooms.”

“We’re in a different era than when the program started,” explained senior department budget advisor Todd Jones during a conference call with reporters Feb. 7. “While educational technology is integral to all efforts in the education sphere . . . leadership in educational technology is not tied to one specific program.”

Officials also sought to deflect criticism of the proposed cuts by arguing that NCLB was designed so educators could find technology funding elsewhere in the federal budget, including in Title1 funds for disadvantaged students and in the Improving Teacher Quality grant program.

But ed-tech advocates have not found the department’s rationale entirely persuasive.

“This is not a technology issue; this is an education issue,” said Anita Givens, board chair for the Washington, D.C.-based State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA). “In most states, EETT is the only source of federal funding to develop the infrastructure and data systems needed to implement NCLB’s accountability goals and report on [adequate yearly progress] requirements.”

Like Bush’s 2005 budget request, the 2006 model is weighted heavily in favor of NCLB priorities, including a $603 million increase in Title 1 spending (to $13.3 billion) to ensure the nation’s neediest schools are making progress under NCLB, and a $508 million increase to special-education programs, bringing funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act up to $11.1 billon. Overall, federal spending on NCLB is slated to increase by nearly $1 billion, to $25.3 billion.

At the crux of the president’s NCLB plan this year is a new initiative intended to help usher accountability into the nation’s high schools. Until this year, the federal law has focused on improving student achievement and accountability in the nation’s elementary and middle schools, with a special emphasis on reading in the younger grades.

Under the president’s 2006 budget proposal, however, schools would receive $1.5 billion to push the program into secondary schools. The majority of those funds ($1.2 billion) would help states implement an accountability framework and design interventions meant to boost student achievement. The remainder of the money would be used to measure student achievement in reading and mathematics; improve the reading skills of at-risk teens; boost funding for the Math and Science Partnerships program to help students perform at grade level in those subjects; and create a Community College Access program to provide high school students with more opportunities to take college-level courses.

The president’s 2006 budget request also emphasizes school choice and the need for more highly qualified teachers. Besides providing nearly $3 billion for the Teacher Quality State Grant program to support teacher training and recruitment, the president has asked for $500 million in funding for a new Teacher Incentive Fund, designed to attract the best teachers to serve in traditionally low-performing schools.

In addition to the state technology block-grant initiative, a handful of smaller ed-tech programs–including the Community Technology Centers and Star Schools programs–do not appear in the president’s 2006 budget. Other notable programs slated for elimination include the $438 million Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities program; the $66.1 million Regional Education Laboratories program for building high-quality education research and training centers; and Even Start, a $225 million program to improve early learning opportunities for students in the nation’s poorest communities.

Education advocates who support these and other initiatives say they plan to take the fight to Congress, where lawmakers will have the final say regarding which programs make it in 2006 and which don’t.

Though she called Bush’s budget request “devastating,” Melinda George, executive director of SETDA, says she remains hopeful. While the budget debate begins with the president’s request, she said, it ends with Congress. A lot can happen between now and then, she added–as long as educators make their voices heard.

See these related links:

Bush’s 2006 U.S. Department of Education Budget Request
http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/fy2006/education.html

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

State Educational Technology Directors Association
http://www.setda.org