Congress saves ed-tech funding

Negotiations over the federal government’s 2007 education budget appear to have 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) 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 $273 million, down from $496 million in 2005. President Bush has asked Congress to eliminate the program entirely in each of the last four budget cycles–including his 2008 budget proposal.

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

“Failure to fund the Enhancing Education Through Technology program at all in 2007 would have been devastating,” said Don Knezek, chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education. “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 (CoSN). “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 2007 spending bill on 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 debating the bill as of press time but was expected to pass it. The White House 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 109th Congress. If passed by the Senate, increases to U.S. Department of Education funding 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 instruction in order to sustain enrollments.

House Appropriations Committee Chair David Obey, D-Wis., said the proposal would work by eliminating a rash of Congressional earmarks and riders that dragged the negotiations process into the new year. But the deal will come at a price, he said–starting with the elimination of long-standing earmarks for goodwill programs such as Boys and Girls Clubs, America’s Promise, and others.

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, 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 appear safe for another year, they said, their lobbying efforts will shift to getting the new Congress on board with increased funding for 2008.

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-a-year 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, and lawmakers have renewed that exemption every year since. But there were no guarantees they would do so this time, said CoSN’s Krueger.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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