Despite reports that state budgets across the country are improving–state coffers are expected to grow by 6.3 percent in 2006, according to a recent survey by the National Governors Association–advocates of educational technology say a majority of states still rely on federal dollars to promote the use and advancement of technology-based programs in schools. That’s why recent developments in the nation’s Capital spell bad news for educators.

On Dec. 30, President Bush signed into law a federal education budget for 2006 that would cut overall education spending for the first time in a decade, including $221 million less for the Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) state block-grant program, the primary source of federal funding for school technology.

The bill provides a sobering reality for ed-tech proponents 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.

Though improving fiscal conditions at the state level might at least soften the blow for general education spending, Melinda George, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), contends state-level funding for technology programs remains low across the board.

Most states, she says, rely solely on federal dollars to promote educational technology programs, including one-to-one laptop initiatives, wireless computing projects, and remediation efforts intended to help struggling students meet the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

According to SETDA’s “2005 National Trends Report,” a nationwide survey that investigates general statewide trends in educational technology, 12 states–Arkansas, Arizona, Delaware, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, New Hampshire, Oregon, Vermont, and Wisconsin–rely on EETT as their sole source of funding for educational technology, while an additional 50 percent of states report that EETT remains their “primary source” for ed-tech funding.

Without these funds, George and other proponents of increased federal ed-tech funding say, the future of many important technology-related programs is, at best, uncertain.

Fewer dollars isn’t the only factor likely to impact how EETT funds are used in 2006. New language in the measure also would, for the first time, allow states to distribute the money they receive from the federal government on a strictly competitive basis, if they so choose. That means states now can force districts that want these funds to write proposals and compete with other districts statewide in order to receive the money. Prior to 2006, the rules stipulated that EETT funds be distributed half by formula and half by competition, ensuring that eligible school systems across the state would receive a least a small portion of the money, depending on such factors as free or reduced-price lunches and overall population.

Whether states opt for a 100-percent competitive approach, or some other combination of formula and competitive grants, is up to them.

Though the new approach gives state leaders more discretion in how they appropriate funds, enabling decision makers to spend more money on programs they feel show promise and less on those that lack direction, critics say that, by cutting EETT, the federal government is asking schools to do more with less.

“Sure [the new funding allocation guidelines] give states a little more leeway, but it doesn’t change the fact that [lawmakers] have totally decimated the program,” George said.

Despite modest increases to a variety of rural health programs and some major education initiatives, including Pell Grants for disadvantaged students and additional monies to help establish a new teacher incentive fund, other ed-tech advocates who spoke with eSchool News said the final measure falls far short of the Bush administration’s promise to boost student achievement under 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).

“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,” 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 SETDA–has formed an alliance to lobby on behalf of increased funding for school technology.

Still, 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.”

Other budget details

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.

“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.

See these related links:

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

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

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

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

National Governors Association
http://www.nga.org

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

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