Negotiations over the federal government’s 2007 education budget have finally drawn to a close: On Jan. 30, Democratic leaders of the U.S. House and Senate appropriations committees unveiled a plan that would boost federal spending on public education by more than $1 billion for the remainder of the fiscal year, though funding for educational technology and many other programs would remain stagnant.

The bill includes increases for students with disabilities, underprivileged schools, and early childhood education. But the majority of education initiatives–including the Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT or “E2T2”) block-grant program, the primary source of federal funding for school technology–would be “level-funded” under the deal, meaning they would get the same funding as in 2006.

Last year, EETT received $275 million, down from $496 million in 2005. President Bush has asked Congress to eliminate the program entirely in each of the last three budget cycles.

As news of the proposal spread throughout the nation’s capital, education advocates who spoke with eSchool News said the agreement will enable lawmakers to focus their attention on Bush’s 2008 budget request, slated for release in the second week of February. The federal government has been running on a series of continuing resolutions since the 2007 fiscal year began in October.

“We view educational technology and increased funding of the EETT program as mission critical to helping modernize school practices to meet educational goals, address NCLB provisions, and ensure the nation’s competitiveness,” said Mark Schneiderman, director of education policy for the Washington, D.C.-based Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA). “SIIA looks forward to working with our coalition and Congress to increase EETT funding in FY ’08.”

“The level funding is critical for keeping the EETT programs in place and moving forward for students, but funding at this amount does not allow states, districts, and schools to maximize the potential for students,” wrote Mary Ann Wolf, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association. “Many states are seeing significant results in improving student achievement and closing the achievement gap with programs that utilize technology effectively, and increased funding will allow for the replication and scalability of these programs to help more students across the nation.”

Looking to persuade budget negotiators to restore the EETT program to at least $496 million, the amount it received in 2005, representatives from SIIA, the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), and other groups have launched a new online campaign. Dubbed the Mission Critical Campaign, the initiative — available at www.missioncriticalcampaign.org — is a letter-writing and advocacy effort to promote continued support of EETT and other initiatives supporting the use and integration of technology in schools.

“Failure to fund the Enhancing Education Through Technology program at all in 2007 would have been devastating,” said ISTE Chief Executive Officer Don Knezek. “This sends a powerful message of the value this new Congress places on education.”

Still, ed-tech advocates say, the true test is yet to come.

“Level funding for 2007 is good news,” said Keith Krueger, chief executive officer of the Consortium for School Networking. “But the more important fight is for FY 2008…where the new Congress has an opportunity to revisit the issue of investment in our nation’s future through educational technology.”

House lawmakers passed the bill Jan. 31 by a 286-140 vote, with 57 Republicans voting in favor. The winning vote would have been even higher had there not been such hard feelings over how Democrats powered the bill through the House: just an hour of debate time, no amendments allowed.

The Senate was expected to take up the bill later in the week. The White House has signaled that President Bush would sign the bill, despite cuts to his requests for NASA, foreign aid, and communities affected by the latest round of military base closings.

In all, the massive, $463.5 billion spending package includes funding for nine out of 11 domestic appropriations bills left unfinished by the Republican-controlled 109th Congress. After wresting control over both chambers of Congress in the November midterm elections, Democratic committee leaders in the House and Senate have said they can do better.

“The Congressional Republican leadership started the year with a budget so unrealistic that their own members rejected it,” wrote House Appropriations Committee Chair David Obey, D-Wis., in a joint statement with Democratic colleague and Senate Appropriations Chair Robert Byrd, W.Va., in December. “It is important that we clear the decks quickly so that we can get to work on the American people’s priorities, the president’s anticipated war funding request, and a new budget.”

At least one Republican senator has expressed support for the agreement.

“Previous funding levels for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education have been insufficiently low,” said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa. “Health and education are our nation’s two greatest capital investments, and I look forward to working with [Senate leaders] to further increase funding levels for these departments, which have not even kept up with the rate of inflation.”

Increases to U.S. Department of Education funding in the latest 2007 proposal would include the following:

  • Pell Grants: $13.6 billion (an increase of $615.4 million) to raise the maximum Pell Grant amount by $260, to $4,310. The increase, the program’s first in four years, is intended to help the nation’s more than 5.3 million college students cope with the rising cost of higher education.

  • Special Education: $10.7 billion for Part B state grants under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (an increase of $200 million) to help school districts serve an estimated 6.9 million children with disabilities.

  • Title I K-12 Grants: $12.8 billion (an increase of $125 million) to provide approximately 38,000 additional low-income children performing below grade level with intensive reading and math instruction. Democrats say this would reverse last year’s cuts to Title 1 support for elementary and secondary schools–at a time of record enrollments (55 million students in 2006) and pressures for more accountability under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

  • Title I School Improvement Fund: $125 million for this new program to target assistance to the 6,700 schools that failed to meet NCLB requirements in the 2005-06 school year. Supporters say the money will enable struggling schools to implement improvement activities, such as teacher training, tutoring programs, and curriculum upgrades.

  • Head Start: $6.9 billion (an increase of $103.7 million) to help prevent a drop in enrollments for the federal early childhood program. Since 2002, Head Start has been cut by 11 percent, reportedly forcing centers nationwide to cut hours, transportation, and educational instruction in order to sustain enrollments.

    Obey said the proposal, which he co-authored with Byrd, would work by eliminating a rash of Congressional earmarks and riders that dragged the negotiations process into the new year.

    Doing so, however, will come at a price, he said–starting with the elimination of long-standing earmarks for goodwill programs such as Boys and Girls Clubs, the Points of Light Foundation, America’s Promise, and others.

    “I don’t expect people to love this proposal; I don’t love this proposal, and we probably have made some wrong choices,” said Obey. “But in contrast to last year’s Congress, which decided to duck these choices, at least we have made them in order to bring last year’s issues to a conclusion, so we can turn the page and deal with next year’s priorities.”

    Republicans noted the measure was not entirely free of parochial earmarks, saying powerful senators such as Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Pete Domenici, R-N.M., received special treatment for home-state projects.

    Still, despite tough choices, Congress had little choice but to forge ahead at this juncture, ed-tech leaders in Washington said. Now that EETT and other federal ed-tech programs are safe for another year, they said, their lobbying efforts will shift to getting the new Congress on board with increased funding for 2008.

    Though the decision by Congress to level-fund EETT and many other federal school technology programs did not come as much of a shock, Krueger said, there was at least one surprise in the latest proposal.

    Despite giving the impression that the bill would pass without any earmarks, Congressional leaders did make a key addition, granting the federal eRate–the $2.25 billion program that provides telecommunications discounts to eligible schools and libraries–with another year-long exemption to the federal Anti-Deficiency Act (ADA). Widely viewed as an arcane government accounting practice, the ADA is a rule that says federal government agencies must have money in hand before making funding commitments.

    In 2004, the Schools and Libraries Division of the Universal Service Administrative Co., the third-party provider that administers the eRate under the supervision of the Federal Communications Commission, temporarily stopped mailing out eRate funding commitments to schools in order to comply with the law. The move left thousands of educators unsure whether they would receive eRate funds to pay for services rendered. At the time, eRate supporters expressed fears that the law might derail the program. Congress eventually agreed to pass a one-year exemption, letting the eRate slide on ADA compliance. Lawmakers have renewed that exemption every year since. But there were no guarantees they would do so this time, said Krueger.

    “We were told it was to be a clean resolution,” he said, “meaning no extraneous issues.” Fortunately for schools that rely on federal eRate dollars, House and Senate leaders decided to make an exception.

    (Correction: eSchool News originally reported that Congress approved an increase of $1.7 billion in education funding in its 2007 budget agreement. The figure should have read $1.17 billion.)

    Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

    Links:

    Mission Critical Campaign
    www.missioncriticalcampaign.org

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

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

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

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