Less than two months after President Bush asked Congress to cut more than $3 billion from education in his 2007 budget proposal, U.S. senators have responded by passing a proposal of their own that would restore $1.5 billion to school funding, significantly reducing cuts to some education programs and leaving the door open for initiatives previously slated for elimination to be saved yet again.

The measure, sponsored by Sens. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, was approved March 16 in a narrow 51-49 vote. The bill doesn’t set funding for many specific programs, so it’s too early to tell how educational technology would fare under the measure.

Overall, the resolution would increase the amount of money available for programs sponsored by the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and Education by $7 billion over the president’s plan. Under the Senate bill, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) would receive $55.8 billion in 2007–$1.5 billion more than the $54.3 billion requested by Bush, but still nearly $2 billion short of what schools received in 2006. As work on the 2007 appropriations bills begins on Capitol Hill, advocates of educational technology say the Senate’s proposal is proof that lawmakers don’t necessarily share the administration’s desire to cut domestic spending. Given that it’s an election year, and politicians on both sides of the political aisle will be looking to curry favor with their constituents, the odds that lawmakers will preserve the Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) block-grant program and other technology-related spending measures are improving.

“At this stage of the budgeting process, this increase is an extremely important step in restoring federal support for technology in education, as it provides increased funding flexibility for Congress to address critical priorities in the global competitiveness agenda and in support of schools’ efforts to meet the rigorous requirements of No Child Left Behind,” said Don Knezek, chief executive officer for the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). ISTE, along with the Washington, D.C.-based Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) and the Software & Information Industry Association, have organized a nationwide advocacy campaign to boost federal support for school technology.

The primary source of federal ed-tech funding, EETT has been targeted for elimination by the Bush administration in each of the last two budget cycles. In 2005, the program received $496 million. In 2006, despite efforts by the administration to kill the program, EETT received $272 million. In 2007, the program finds itself on the chopping block yet again.

But eliminating EETT, some say, would go too far.

“We have done more than cut out the fat, we have done more than cut through the muscle, we have done more than cut through the bone; we have cut into the marrow,” said Specter in support of the Senate bill.

Unlike the president’s budget proposal, which breaks out spending for individual programs line by line, the Senate’s version offers only general departmental figures, providing specific dollar amounts for a select few programs. The Senate resolution, known as S. Con. Res. 83, makes no mention of EETT specifically, choosing instead to focus on aid increases for the disadvantaged and disabled. It does, however, provide $412 million for the president’s American Competitiveness Initiative, a massive research and teacher-training program to ensure that America maintains its competitive edge.

Given a nationwide focus on science, math, and technology instruction in schools and an emerging emphasis on the importance of maintaining global competitiveness, advocates of educational technology contend EETT plays a critical role in preparing students for a successful future.

The Bush administration thinks otherwise. Responding to protests from the ed-tech community, administration officials say EETT has served its purpose–a point of emphasis that was reiterated 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,” wrote the administration as part of ED’s Fiscal Year 2007 Budget Summary.

Rather than rely on EETT to provide funding for school technology initiatives, ED officials–including Tim Magner, director of the federal Office of Educational Technology–have said schools should look for funding elsewhere in the federal budget, pointing out that money for school technology is tucked away in a variety of grant programs supporting everything from teacher quality to disadvantaged students in Title I schools.

“There are resources across the federal government’s investment; there are a variety of other programs outside of EETT…where money can be used to support the integration of technology,” Magner said in a recent interview with eSchool News.

It’s an argument that ed-tech advocates have dismissed for years. Following the Senate’s approval of its budget proposal late last week, at least one influential lawmaker took a similar exception to the administration’s reasoning.

In a letter on behalf of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, former vice presidential candidate and ranking minority committee member Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., called the administration’s decision to eliminate EETT “at best, premature–and at worst, simply wrong.”

Rather than simply write EETT off, Lieberman said he would reserve judgment on the program until results from a government-mandated study from ED are available. The department, under the leadership of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, reportedly is in the process of conducting an independent analysis, using scientifically based research, to determine “the conditions and practices under which technology is effective in increasing student academic achievements.”

The study–requested by Congress under the provisions of Title II, Part D, the same piece of legislation that authorizes funding for the EETT block-grant program–reportedly will evaluate several software programs in the areas of reading and mathematics. Though eligible schools are not required to spend EETT funds on the programs under evaluation, Lieberman says the results could help identify better ways to use EETT funds.

The results of that study are due for review by Congress no later than April 6.

Another independent study, by the Virginia-based State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), finds that schools nationwide rely on EETT funds to support technology-related initiatives and to help meet the demands of NCLB.

In its 2006 “National Trends” survey, released March 20, SETDA reports that 14 states–Arizona, California, Delaware, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin–rely solely on EETT to support technology-related projects at their schools.

The study also found that nearly a quarter of all states currently are “funding or commissioning research studies on the impact of educational technology on learning in schools.”

What’s more, the report stated that 40 percent of all states use some portion of their EETT funds to promote initiatives designed to boost the quality and effectiveness of reading and mathematics instruction in eligible schools.

If the cuts go through, educators say many of these programs would be in jeopardy.

Survey results were collected from a single respondent–in most cases, the state ed-tech director–in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, SETDA said.

Looking ahead to what is likely to be a long and contentious appropriations battle, advocates of educational technology say the news, at least on the Senate side, is encouraging.

The House has yet to submit its proposal and isn’t expected to begin budget considerations until at least next week.

Though it’s believed that the House proposal will more closely mirror the president’s plan, the administration reportedly is feeling some push-back from Democrats and moderate Republicans worried about funding levels for domestic programs–concerns no doubt amplified by the fact that this is an election year.

The Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group led by former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, a Democrat, has expressed opposition to the president’s budget, saying that it would continue large spending increases for the Pentagon while squeezing important domestic programs.

On March 16, in a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., 23 moderate Republicans threatened to oppose the House version of the budget resolution, which is still being developed, unless it includes a 2 percent increase, or about $8 billion, for domestic discretionary spending.

Given the effort lawmakers in both chambers of Congress are devoting to their re-election campaigns, Congressional leaders say they don’t expect final action on the 2007 budget until sometime after the mid-term elections, giving ed-tech advocates until November to state the case for EETT and other programs slated for elimination.

“It will continue to be critical that Congress understand how important technology funding is as the appropriations process unfolds and as actual funding for individual programs is determined,” said Knezek. “But, if the House joins the Senate in a resolution that increases discretionary spending, then there is at least funding available that Congress can appropriate to educational technology programs–and that is a very encouraging development.”

Links:

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

U.S. Senate
http://www.senate.gov/

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

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

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

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

Alliance for Excellent Education
http://www.all4ed.org/

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

SETDA’s National Trends Report (PDF)
http://www.setda.org/resources/SETDA%20Nat%27l%20Trends%20Final%202006%2Epdf