The U.S. Senate on Dec. 21 quietly approved a new education budget for 2006 that will cut federal education spending for the first time in nearly a decade.

The massive, $602 billion spending package–which includes funding for labor, health, and education initiatives–slashes funding for several ed-tech related programs, including $221 million less for the Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) state block-grant program, the primary source of federal funding for educational technology. The measure passed in the House of Representatives one week earlier and now heads to President Bush for his signature.

The bill provides a sobering reality for proponents of educational technology nationwide, many of whom had hoped to persuade Congress to restore funds to EETT and other technology-related initiatives after House lawmakers rejected an earlier version of the bill in November. But even with a 45-percent cut in EETT funding, to $275 million in 2006, the picture could have been worse: President Bush had asked Congress to dismantle the program completely.

Despite modest increases to a variety of rural health programs and some major education initiatives, including Pell Grants for disadvantaged students and additional funds to help establish a new teacher incentive fund, educational technology advocates who spoke with eSchool News said the final bill falls far short of the Bush administration’s promise to boost student achievement under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and could prohibit schools from doing their part to prepare the nation’s students for success in an increasingly competitive global economy.

“While we understand that times are tough for the federal budget, we continue to believe that federal leadership and investment in educational technology remains necessary in order to close the achievement gap and prepare our students for the 21st-century workforce,” said Keith Krueger, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Consortium for School Networking (CoSN).

“General requirements for improved student achievement necessitate technology-rich learning environments and the capacity of educators to use them effectively,” added Don Knezek, chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), whose organization, along with CoSN, the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA), and the State Technology Director’s Association (SETDA), has formed an alliance to lobby on behalf of increased funding for school technology.

“The move to reduce or eliminate federal dollars to support technology and related professional development in schools significantly reduces any expectation of meeting NCLB, and it creates severe, unfunded demands on school districts already strapped for funding,” Knezek concluded.

Still, ed-tech proponents say, it could have been worse.

“We were up against a challenging year,” said Mark Schneiderman, director of federal education policy for SIIA. Given that President Bush had wanted to scrap the EETT program entirely, Schneiderman said, the fact that House and Senate lawmakers voted to fund the program–albeit at a significantly reduced rate–is proof that advocacy efforts on Capitol Hill and elsewhere across the country are working.

“The [ed-tech] community did more than it ever has this year to lobby on behalf of EETT,” he said. “And it’s a good thing … otherwise, the program might have been eliminated entirely.”

The leaner budget, which passed in the House on Dec. 14 by a vote of 215 to 213 and passed the Senate by unanimous consent on Dec. 21, slashes funding for domestic programs by $1.4 billion. The final version contains about $142.5 billion to be spent at lawmakers’ discretion, with the bulk of the rest of the funds reserved for payments to Medicaid and Medicare programs.

Overall, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) will receive $56.5 billion in discretionary funds in the new fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. That’s about $59 million less than it received in 2005, but almost $300 million above what President Bush had requested. The White House said a more significant cut was necessary to rein in federal spending and shift the focus toward fiscal responsibility.

But lawmakers, in what has become an increasingly partisan Congress, rejected the president’s original blueprint, demonstrating a newfound independence that has thrown into flux a number of Bush’s plans in recent months.

The cuts, which represent the first major decrease in education spending in nearly a decade, promise to leave a number of long-standing programs strapped for cash heading into the new year. The figures do not reflect an additional across-the-board cut of 1 percent, which threatens to slash spending for major discretionary initiatives even further.

Not even the president’s signature No Child Left Behind law, which has enjoyed steady funding increases since its inception in 2001, was spared the result of fiscal belt-tightening by Congress this year. NCLB-related programs reportedly will lose as much as $780 million in funding in 2006.

Lawmakers also slashed overall funding for education for the disadvantaged (including Title I, Reading First, Literacy Through School Libraries, and other programs), taking it from $14.8 billion in 2005 to $14.6 billion this year. In his proposal, Bush had asked Congress to increase overall funding for these programs to $16 billion, and part of this increase would have been used to fund a new high-school intervention program intended to increase graduation rates. Congress cut that program entirely from its version of the bill.

Other education-related initiatives, including several educational technology programs, also experienced a squeeze.

Among those most affected was the Community Technology Centers program, an effort to increase access to technology in low-income areas. That initiative, which received close to $5 million in 2005, was eliminated completely. Though lawmakers in the Senate had lobbied to keep the program, both President Bush and the House recommended cutting it in 2006.

The State Grants for Innovative Education program, which provides money to states for innovative educational practices, saw its budget slashed almost in half, from $198 million in 2005 to $100 million this year, while the Fund for the Improvement of Education saw its spending slip from $414 million in 2005 to $160 million in 2006. Even Start, a literacy program for migrant students learning English, was cut by $125 million, from $225 million in 2005 to $100 million in 2006.

Initiatives whose budgets remained flat from the previous year included the State Grants for Improving Teacher Quality program, which will get $3 billion in 2006, and the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, an after-school initiative to promote student achievement (in part through the effective integration of technology), which will get $991 million. Both of these programs are subject to the across-the-board cut of 1 percent, meaning their total funding likely will decrease when compared with the prior year’s levels.

Democrats in the House and Senate feared the bill would send lawmakers home for winter recess looking like Grinches.

“The holidays are supposed to be a time of generosity–a time when Santa Claus fills children’s stockings,” Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., told the Associated Press. “Instead, this Congress is emptying them to provide a tax cut that gives 50 percent of the benefit to people making more than $1 million.”

“Merry Christmas! Hang your stockings! Congress is bringing you a big lump of coal!” proclaimed Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, in response to the bill after it passed in the House. Harkin, along with his colleague, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., had vowed to kill the proposal on the Senate floor.

But Republicans countered those criticisms, saying the leaner budget would put the government on a path to fiscal responsibility, helping to offset other costs, including the rising price tag on Iraq and more than $60 billion in relief approved for hurricane damage in the Gulf Coast; not to mention chipping away at the mounting federal deficit, which reportedly has ballooned to more than $300 billion.

The only significant increase to an existing education program in this year’s budget came in the form of money for Pell Grants, which are slated to receive an additional $800 million in 2006, bringing their total to $13 billion. The maximum amount of money awarded for each grant would remain the same, at $4,050 apiece. Given the steadily rising cost of college tuition–enrollment fees reportedly have spiked by 30 percent or more in some places–many Democrats argued that the maximum amount for each grant should be increased.

One of the largest additions–$95 million–went to establish a new Teacher Incentive Fund, which seeks to reward educators for helping students meet the goals of NCLB.

Incentives aside, ed-tech advocates insist it will be hard to achieve the long-term goals of the law without more funding for programs such as EETT, which they contend are necessary to demonstrate leadership and an ongoing commitment to innovation at the federal level.

“Schools rely heavily on EETT funding to embrace the demands of NCLB, and they have been encouraged to do so as other federal programs supporting technology in schools have been systematically terminated,” said ISTE’s Knezek. “Removing funding from the EETT program constitutes a promise broken by this administration–a promise made as they negotiated support for passage of NCLB.”

CoSN’s Krueger agreed. “In short, everybody loses on this one,” he said.


Links:

U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee
http://appropriations.senate.gov/

U.S. House Appropriations Committee
http://appropriations.house.gov/

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

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