President Bush’s budget proposal for 2007 would eliminate the federal Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) block-grant program altogether (see story, Page One), but school technology directors already are reeling as they try to absorb the $226 million cut from the program this year.

The 45-percent reduction in EETT funding signed into law on Dec. 30 is part of the first decline in federal education spending in nearly a decade (see story: Losing millions in federal dollars has left state and local officials wondering how they can continue to support the hardware, software, and professional development they’ve purchased already through EETT, the primary source of federal funding for ed-tech initiatives.

The 2006 cuts are affecting various districts in different ways, but the consensus appears to be that the loss of EETT funding will most severely affect poor, minority students in urban areas and at-risk, low-income students in rural areas who depend on distance education and other technology-supported services.

“The [Bush] administration argues that schools are all wired now, and there’s no reason left to have the grant program,” said Melinda George, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association. “We would argue that EETT is the program that lets schools follow through on that investment.”

George said most states will not begin to feel the cuts until the beginning of the 2006-07 academic year. She said many states still are waiting for exact numbers from ED that explain the extent of their losses, and they are trying to determine new fund-raising and budgeting strategies to compensate for what likely will be a 45-percent cut for each state.

States will benefit slightly from new regulations that permit more flexibility in how funding can be distributed, George said. In the past, federal guidelines dictated how much money states were allowed to use for competitive grants and how much they had to distribute as formula grants, which are given to local education agencies based on prescribed economic criteria and contingent upon a state-approved technology plan

State ed-tech directors say they appreciate this additional flexibility. But in states that choose to award a larger portion of these funds competitively, local school officials fear they’ll be frozen out of the benefits of such funding entirely.

According to Mary Saponara, a grant writer for California’s San Ysidro Elementary School District, her district expected to use $1.5 million in EETT funding for 2006 to purchase English-language instructional software, as well as staff development to help teachers use the software. San Ysidro reportedly is the busiest port of entry for Spanish-speaking students in the United States. Many students enter this K-8 district from Central and South American countries without any English-language skills whatsoever.

But Saponara told eSchool News that the state already has decided to distribute EETT funds competitively, and San Ysidro appears to have lost out as a result.

“San Diego Unified [School District] took all the money,” said Saponara. “[State officials] who read our grant [proposal] said our focus was too narrow.”

Besides working to meet the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) requirement that English-language learners be proficient in English by the eighth grade, Saponara said, she and her staff are working to improve the self-esteem of students who are clearly at risk.

“If they don’t have [English-language skills] by third grade, then they suffer in the fourth grade, when expository texts in social studies and other subjects require a certain level of proficiency. The problem becomes progressively worse, and by the time they progress through upper elementary grades, they are more likely to engage in illegal activities,” Saponara said.

She added: “We understand the war in Iraq is costly, we understand the billions of dollars of damage caused by [Hurricane] Katrina. … But how are these children in our district and in districts around the country [supposed] to improve, if they don’t have the resources to do so?”

John O’Connell, instructional technology consultant for the Iowa Department of Education, said his state’s largely rural population of students faces similar limitations with the loss of funding.

Though he hasn’t seen any final numbers from federal officials yet, O’Connell said he expects his state will get about $1.4 million in EETT funding this year, or $2.80 per student. At its peak of $3.3 million in funding, Iowa received $6 per student for technology just a few years ago.

State efforts to raise test scores in math were showing particular promise in pilot programs funded by EETT grants. But inconsistencies in funding, combined with dashed plans to purchase more professional development, software licensing, and hardware for the math program, have harmed morale.

“You begin to suffer from credibility issues, even if it’s not you who’s ultimately responsible for providing the funding,” O’Connell said.

Pennsylvania has both urban and rural districts that will take a major hit from the loss of EETT money. A few years ago, the state was receiving about $22 million in funding. For 2006, the figure–though not yet confirmed by the federal government–appears to have dwindled to somewhere around $9 million.

EETT “is a source for the vast majority of our tech spending. Program upgrades, teacher deployment, technology integration in the classroom–all of those programs are predicated upon these funds,” said Michael Golden, deputy secretary of the state’s Office of Information and Educational Technology.

“Without any additional state money, many of our programs will be unable to continue,” Golden said. “That most dramatically affects large urban districts and poor rural ones. Those are exactly the populations these funds should be focused on.”

As an example, Golden cited the School District of Philadelphia’s use of the SchoolNet instructional management system. The system is designed to manage resources and reports tied to NCLB benchmark exams for student achievement. Until now, a great deal of the city’s EETT funding has been spent on developing the system, training staff for its use, and other related costs. But Golden said he’s heard reports from Philadelphia school officials that the district no longer will be able to support the program without additional funding from the state.

And the problem with rural areas, Golden said, “is that there just isn’t enough money to go around. These districts [often are located in] poor communities, they have limited resources, they rely heavily on distance learning to share best practices and collaborate.” Stanley Johnson, technology director for the District of Columbia Public Schools, tells a similar story. “I may not be able to reach as many schools & because the dollars are just not there,” Johnson said.

Formula-based EETT funding is distributed both to the D.C. Public Schools and to the city’s charter schools, which are defined as individual LEAs throughout the district. The number of charter schools in the district has doubled in recent years, from 30 to 60. EETT funding, in the meantime, has dropped from $3.1 million a few years ago to $2.4 million this year–yet it has to stretch even further than before.

Johnson said that the cuts have forced his departments, which traditionally have functioned independently, to communicate more closely and pool their resources. But even with the improvements in interdepartmental communication, Johnson said, his ability to plan for the long term has been affected by the uncertainty of funding. This costs the district more money in the long run, he said, because he has had to refinance the interest from previous hardware leases that were taken out when EETT funding seemed more certain.

Despite what appears to be a near-uniform call for continued EETT funding from around the country, the Bush administration’s 2007 budget proposal again seeks to eliminate the program, as it did in 2006.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education (ED) declined to comment for this story, instead referring an eSchool News reporter to this short passage about EETT included in the president’s 2007 budget proposal:

“Schools today offer a greater level of technology infrastructure than just a few years ago, and there is no longer a significant need for a state formula grant program targeted specifically on (and limited to) the effective integration of technology into schools and classrooms. Districts seeking funds to integrate technology into teaching and learning can use other federal program funds, such as Improving Teacher Quality State Grants and Title I Grants to Local Educational Agencies. Congress eliminated much of the program in 2006; [this] request would complete the process.”