In an information campaign organized by three influential ed-tech organizations, educators and other ed-tech advocates took to Capitol Hill March 9 in hopes of convincing lawmakers to restore funding to the Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) block grant program and other endangered technology-specific spending measures.

President Bush and other leaders have issued calls to bolster the nation’s education system in the face of broad economic changes, but ed-tech advocates contend such goals will not be realized without the proper resources. If proposed ed-tech funding cuts come to fruition, they said, the prospects are dimming that America will remain competitive in a global economy.

The event, part of a full day of political activities intended to buttress congressional support for the integration of school technology, brought more than 150 educators and industry representatives from nearly 40 states and over 75 congressional districts to Washington, D.C. to lobby on behalf of school technology. The annual “Advocacy Day” was conducted in conjunction with the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), and the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) and marked the largest single turnout in the event’s five-year history.

“The fact that 2006 is witnessing our largest Advocacy Day ever speaks volumes about the dedication of the education technology community to making its voice heard on federal policy,” said Keith Krueger, chief executive officer of CoSN. “This spectacular turnout also demonstrates that educators understand that federal leadership and support of education technology is in jeopardy and that the time has arrived to trumpet the importance of technology to teaching, learning, and competing globally. I hope Congress heeds this call.”

The program also provided a forum for a candid discussion about what many in the industry perceive as a disconnect between Washington’s preoccupation with education reform and global competitiveness and the resources available to schools in support of these changes.

“We all know authorizations really don’t mean that much,” said Julia Warner, a legislative aide to Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., during a panel discussion about the importance of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics instruction–called “STEM education” in Washington parlance. Rep. Ehlers is co-chair of the House STEM Education Caucus, a bipartisan effort dedicated to giving students the skills they need to succeed in the modern workforce.

Lawmakers have roundly endorsed a variety of well-intentioned plans intended to boost the nation’s standing as a world economic power, touting new investments and educational reforms as a means to secure America’s competitive edge over emerging nations such as China and India, Warner said. But the mere existence of such programs, she pointed out, means little without sufficient appropriations.

The prospect of emaciated ed-tech programs emerged in February when President Bush released his 2007 budget, asking Congress to cut some $3.2 billion in school-related funding. (See Bush: Cut $3.2B from education)

The primary program dedicated specifically to school technology, EETT, was originally authorized by Congress at $1 billion. In 2005, it received $496 million. In the 2006 federal budget–in spite of efforts by the Bush administration to kill the program–EETT received $272 million. Now, in 2007, the president is trying once again to kill the program.

Congressional Republicans, along with Democrats, are showing a greater willingness of late to distance themselves from the president’s positions. So whether Bush will get his way is problematic.

Calling the president’s 2007 budget proposal merely “a set of guidelines,” Warner said ed-tech advocates can play a pivotal role in helping members of Congress understand the impact technology will play on their future success.

“As senators and congressmen, we know a little about a lot of things,” said Nevada Sen. John Ensign, a Republican, during a speech to SIIA members. To fully understand an issue, he said, lawmakers often rely on the knowledge of their constituents.

Not unlike other critics, who forecast that a decline in the quality of public education in this country will lead to an economic downturn, Ensign pointed to a lack of interest in high tech fields such as engineering, mathematics, and science as evidence that U.S. schools are not doing their part to train and engage students.

“Students in the U.S. are no longer keeping up with their peers,” said Ensign. “We need to produce more home-grown talent.” As chairman of the Senate Republican High Tech Task Force and a member of the Senate’s influential Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, Ensign said the amount of support educational technology and other STEM-related programs receive on Capitol Hill hinges largely on advocates’ ability to share their personal stories–and illustrate a need for ongoing federal support. “Seeing is believing,” said Ensign.

One audience member asked why Congress would consider cutting money from programs such as EETT at a time when national initiatives introduced by President Bush and others aim to recruit students into technical careers that depend on technology. Not all lawmakers recognize that technology skills are a prerequisite for such careers, Ensign said.

Outside a small circle of lawmakers on the Hill who are committed to increasing awareness of STEM education, Ensign explained, “I don’t think most people are aware of it.” And that’s precisely why educators must “find out what is working” and provide proof of that success, he said.

Mark Schneiderman, director of education policy for SIIA, said much of the day’s activities were intended to do just that.

Throughout the day, he said, the SIIA, in partnership with CoSN and ISTE, organized and held some 40 meetings with various constituents and members of Congress to advocate on behalf of school technology.

Rather than simply asking lawmakers to throw money at existing programs, Schneiderman said, the discussions sought to highlight local success stories and provide evidence that a larger federal investment in school technology is needed to help schools meet the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind Act as well as other reforms intended to keep America competitive in the 21st century.

“Our goal really was to talk through with [lawmakers] the role that technology plays in helping schools meet these federal requirements,” said Schneiderman. “Our schools and our students cannot be competitive without better leveraging technology in education.”

Schneiderman said the event also provided an opportunity for software vendors to get together with representatives from the education community to better understand the challenges schools face in deploying technology-based solutions in the classroom.

By working together, Schneiderman said, schools and technology vendors can create a united front–keeping the pressure on lawmakers to protect the federal government’s investment in school technology.

“This show of support from educators across the country, not only persuades key legislators regarding the importance of education technology; it is a significant step in improving the livelihoods of generations of American’s to come,” noted Don Knezek, CEO of ISTE.

Though he rated the day’s events on Capitol Hill “a success,” Schneiderman said one afternoon of work in Washington isn’t likely to get the job done.

For educators and others who couldn’t make the trip, but still hope to contribute, Schneiderman suggested that education advocates write letters to their federal and state representatives and work to foster an ongoing dialogue about the importance of school technology at the local level–perhaps even inviting politicians to their schools to see the technology at work firsthand.

“Getting the message out there is critical,” said Schneiderman, adding, “It’s incumbent upon people to share their stories.”

Links:

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

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

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

Write your U.S. Representative
http://www.house.gov/writerep/

Senators of the 109th Congress
http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm