For the second straight year, President Bush is asking Congress to cut education spending–this time, by more than $3 billion.

In his 2007 budget proposal, released Feb. 6, the president called for the elimination of 42 federal education-related initiatives–including the $275 million Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) block-grant program, the federal government’s primary source of funding for school technology, and the $347 million Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities program.

Bush had advanced the elimination of EETT last year, too, and Congress spared the program in its final 2006 budget–but not before cutting it nearly in half.

Overall, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) would receive $54.4 billion next year, down from $57.6 billion in 2006. Administration officials say the decrease is part of a broader campaign to reduce or eliminate funding for programs that have either fulfilled their promise or have failed to live up to expectations. The White House contends the cuts are necessary to rein in federal spending and trim the ballooning federal deficit–which Bush has vowed to cut in half by 2009–while balancing other priorities, including the war in Iraq, hurricane relief in the Gulf Coast, and massive tax cuts.

It’s too soon to know if lawmakers will back these proposed cuts to education programs during a congressional election year, but ed-tech advocates who spoke with eSchool News following yesterday’s announcement feared that possibility. Critics said the president’s plan fails to provide the resources necessary to prepare today’s students for the challenges posed by the global economy–a goal Bush himself identified during his State of the Union Address to Congress just six days earlier–and might prevent educators from achieving the promise of Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the five-year-old law intended to boost student performance and bring more accountability to the nation’s schools.

“We are deeply disappointed that the administration has chosen, once again, to eliminate federal funding for educational technology,” said Don Knezek, chief executive officer for the International Society for Technology in Education. “Understanding and using technology are critical components of all students’ academic careers and, most certainly, barometers of their future employment prospects. Given the president’s emphasis in the State of the Union on the importance of developing math and science skills in America’s students in order to keep America competitive globally, we do not see how eliminating federal educational technology funding advances his global competitiveness agenda or helps our students.”

“While the governments of other nations–from the United Kingdom and Australia to Singapore, Japan, and China–believe that educational technology serves as the engine for their educational reform efforts, our federal leaders appear to believe otherwise,” said Keith Krueger, chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based Consortium for School Networking (CoSN). “All evidence points to the fact that our states and school districts consistently use federal educational technology dollars to improve student achievement in core curricular areas such as math and science and to engage in professional development–the central pillars of No Child Left Behind and of the president’s new science and math initiatives. The administration’s lack of leadership on this issue will not only inhibit student achievement but will have serious ramifications for the future of this country.”

In a phone briefing with reporters on Feb. 6, Education Secretary Margaret Spelling rebuffed those criticisms, saying the president’s 2007 budget plan is in line with the priorities he singled out for emphasis during his State of the Union Address on Jan. 31.

At the top of that list is $380 million to support a new American Competitiveness Initiative, an ambitious program intended to boost the quality of math and science instruction in the nation’s schools by training as many as 100,000 full- and part-time teachers and increasing access for students to Advanced Placement and other college-level courses.

The budget also carves out nearly $1.5 billion for the president’s High School Reform Initiative aimed at expanding the tenets of NCLB–particularly with respect to increased assessment and improved performance for at-risk students–into the nation’s secondary schools. Falling in step with requests from the nation’s governors that America’s high schools offer more challenging curricula, the reform initiative also provides funds to increase the level of rigor in secondary-school classrooms from coast to coast.

“These new priorities will not undermine our long-standing commitments to help every child receive a [high-] quality education,” said Spellings.

In his proposal, Bush chose to keep spending level or, in some cases, increase it for a number of other programs the administration believes are critical to the success of failing schools under NCLB.

His proposal recommends level funding for Title 1 grant programs–providing $12.7 billion to states to support the implementation of NCLB-related reforms in the nation’s poorest schools, as well as an additional $200 million in first-time funding to help turn around low-performing institutions.

In addition, it sets aside some $55 million for the creation and integration of statewide data systems designed to improve graduation and dropout data, and to help states comply with federal reporting requirements–an increase of $30 million compared with 2006 levels.

Providing more options for parents was another area of focus in this year’s proposal.

Although states have made improvements to implementing NCLB choice options, ED officials say there still are too few alternatives in many districts for parents seeking a high-quality education for their children.

To counter this problem, the administration is asking Congress for $100 million to fund a new America’s Opportunity Scholarships for Kids program, which would give parents of students enrolled in schools identified as “in need of improvement” more opportunities to transfer their children to a private school or obtain other supplemental services.

Bush’s 2007 proposal also provides for an extra $100 million for state grants under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, bringing funding for that program up to $10.7 billion–capping off a 69-percent increase in funding that began in 2001, administration officials say.

“This budget request soundly targets resources where they are needed most and working best,” said Spellings. “It will enable us to continue to deliver results for all children under No Child Left Behind, and it tackles our vital priority to improve our global competitiveness by targeting achievement in math and science.”

Despite an emphasis on these and other reforms, critics of the 2007 budget plan say the loss of certain programs, including EETT, will only make it more difficult for educators to improve the quality of education in the nation’s schools.

“The administration’s efforts to kill funding for technology under [EETT] undermines efforts to improve the science and math skills of our nation’s children and ultimately will weaken our ability to compete in the global economy,” said Sheryl Abshire, district administrative coordinator of technology for Calcasieu Parish Public Schools in Lake Charles, La., and CoSN chair. “The elimination of this funding–which allows all children access to technology and the internet, helps train teachers how to use and integrate technology into the curriculum, and provides funding and support for core-curricular content–runs completely counter to the goals and vision outlined by the president.”

“EETT is a critical program, as it supports all of the goals of No Child Left Behind,” added Melinda George, executive director of the State Educational Technology Director’s Association. George, who said EETT funding is used by more than 80 percent of school districts across the country to help close the achievement gap, train and recruit high-quality teachers, and improve accountability through the effective integration of data systems, called the administration’s decision to target EETT yet again “a direct strike against effectively preparing today’s students to live and work in the 21st century.”

To be sure, ED isn’t the only agency likely to see its budget shrink in 2007. All told, the massive, $2.7 trillion spending package calls for the elimination of 141 programs–for an estimated savings of $14.5 billion.

Bush’s desire to cut school technology funding is nothing new. The president also proposed eliminating the program in his 2006 budget request, only to see it salvaged by Congress during appropriations talks, albeit at a significantly reduced rate. In fact, the program–which provides funding for a wide range of technology initiatives, including access to online courses, the inclusion of new and emerging technology tools in classroom instruction, continual assessment of student progress through computer-based testing, and reporting of student achievement data, among other uses–has seen its funding slashed now in each of the last three years–from $696 million in 2004, to $498 million in 2005, to $275 million in 2006.

But given the emphasis placed on global competition during his State of the Union Address, educational technology advocates say the president’s decision to cut education funding–and ed-tech funding in particular–runs afoul of the promises the administration has made to prepare America’s students for success in a global economy.

“No matter if the world is flat or round, the United States must invest in the education of our children in order to produce global leaders,” said Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association. “Schools are often the only place that our neediest children get access to technologically advanced learning. This is no time to cut funding for educational technology.”

“[The National Education Association] shares the desire of the president and Congress for the United States to remain competitive in the changing global economy, but that simply cannot happen without a strong commitment to 21st-century skills and funding for educational technology,” said NEA President Reg Weaver in a statement about the budget proposal.

Among the other 42 education programs on the chopping block for 2007 is the Teacher Quality Enhancement program, a $59.9 million effort to increase training and provide incentives for high-quality teachers. Officials say this program is unnecessary because it duplicates the efforts of other training programs, including Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative. Also slated for elimination are Star Schools, a $14.9 million grant program that supports the ongoing development of distance-education projects intended to improve the delivery of curriculum; and Ready to Teach, a $10.9 million grant initiative intended to develop video-based instructional programming for schools.

The largest reductions come through the proposed elimination of two programs: the $1.2 billion Vocational Education State Grant initiative, intended to support state efforts to improve vocational education and job training; and the $346.5 million Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities State Grants program, intended to help states create safe and drug-free learning environments for students.

In defense of the cuts, Spellings and other administration officials said funding reductions in some programs were necessary to make room for the creation of new initiatives, including Bush’s competitiveness initiative and his high-school reform plan.

“Since the implementation of No Child Left Behind, we have seen that high standards, good teachers, and accountable schools help every student make great strides in performance,” Spellings said. “Yet as we survey the global landscape, it is clear that our international competitors have learned from our example. To ensure that America’s students become the groundbreaking researchers and leaders of tomorrow, we must transform the way we educate our children today.”

As news of Bush’s 2007 budget proposal began to sink in, many educators and education advocates were asking themselves if achieving that promise would be possible with $3.2 billion in budget cuts.

Links:

The White House
http://www.whitehouse.gov/

Office of Management and the Budget
http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov/index.jhtml