Many say Congress should continue funding ed-tech through its own dedicated funding stream.

Many say Congress should continue funding ed-tech through its own dedicated funding stream.

Alarmed at what they see as a potential setback in federal support for education technology, several dozen state and national education groups and high-tech companies have sent letters to House and Senate lawmakers, urging them to continue funding the Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) block-grant program in fiscal 2011.

The letters expressed concerns about President Obama’s budget proposal, which would fold EETT—the largest single source of federal funding for school technology equipment, support, and professional development—into a new competitive grant program that aims to promote effective teaching and learning.

According to federal officials, this new initiative would “include a focus on integrating technology into instruction and using technology to drive improvements in teaching and learning” throughout all subject areas. (Read “Nation’s ed-tech chief reacts to budget concerns”)

But ed-tech advocates say that’s not enough—and Congress should continue funding education technology through its own dedicated funding stream, they say. (Read “FY11 budget plan folds ed tech into new program”)

“We know that providing all children with a high-quality education that will enable them to succeed in a global economy predicated on knowledge and innovation is both a moral imperative and critical to America’s economic future,” the letters stated. “Educational technologies are mission critical to this purpose. Congress included EETT as a core provision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act … to ensure a sustained, systematic, and coordinated investment in educational technology leadership needed to drive education innovation and continuous improvement.”

Nearly 70 companies and organizations signed onto the latest letter, which was sent April 30 to members of the House appropriations subcommittee that deals with education. The letter urged lawmakers to preserve EETT with a funding level of at least $500 million in FY11. The program received only $100 million in FY10, but it did get another $650 million in stimulus funding during the 2009 and 2010 fiscal years.

In a separate letter to Senate appropriations committee members, 21 U.S. senators also urged their colleagues to preserve EETT at a funding level of at least $500 million.

“Because state and local education budgets are especially strained in the current economic climate, eliminating EETT would dramatically reduce the availability of education technology in many American public schools,” the senators’ letter said.

Administration officials say the proposed budget wouldn’t do away with ed-tech funding altogether. Instead, they say, technology would become a critical component of all federally funded education programs under Obama’s approach, instead of a separate line item.

“We’re not eliminating EETT, and we want to make that clear,” said Karen Cator, director of education technology for the U.S. Department of Education (ED). “We’re just consolidating it, and a lot of other different programs, in order to provide for broader and more flexible programs that incorporate technology into learning, not isolate it.”

Ed-tech advocates say this approach has several flaws.

EETT funds are distributed to states in the form of block grants. States keep a small portion of these funds for state leadership efforts and distribute the bulk of the money to local districts, half competitively and half by formula.

Folding EETT into a competitive grant program that supports effective teaching and learning doesn’t guarantee that school districts will receive, or use, the money to bolster their ed-tech initiatives, critics argue. They fear many districts that have relied on formula-based grants for school technology will be left behind under the new approach.

Also, although administration officials insist that technology will be an important part of the new grant initiative, what will happen if the leadership in Washington changes, critics say? Will there still be a commitment to education technology as a critical component of school reform?

Like EETT, the new Effective Teaching and Learning program that Obama has proposed will set aside money for state and national leadership efforts that focus on education technology, Cator said. She added that ED will continue to support the use of technology to transform teaching and learning through its Investing in Innovation (I3) grant program as well.

When asked if the shift toward a fully competitive model of funding will put some districts at a disadvantage, Cator said the department is working on strategies to improve competitiveness.

“Since these … different funding structures are new to us as well, we can study how these grants work over time, which schools are receiving the grants and what works best, and how we can fine-tune the model to best serve schools,” she said.

She continued, “Ed tech will never lose its voice in Congress, because technology is the standard now and we know that. This initiative is giving us the opportunity to learn how to best integrate technology across all programs, and this will—if anything—give ed tech a stronger voice then just being an add-in.”

Several education organizations remain skeptical.

Infusing ed tech throughout other programs, and maintaining a separate funding stream dedicated to promoting the effective use of technology in education, should not be an “either/or” proposition, said Lucy Gettman, director of federal programs, advocacy, and issues management, and Ann Flynn, director of education technology, in a joint statement from the National School Boards Association (NSBA).

“There needs to be a targeted program and funding, as well as an infusion throughout the education continuum of teacher preparation and professional development, instruction, assessment, college and career readiness, et cetera,” the statement said.

While integrating technology into multiple programs sounds good in theory, “we haven’t quite evolved to the point where such integration is natural in schools,” said Amanda Karhuse, director of government relations for the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

“Further, state and local education budgets are being slashed, so schools are trying to do more with less,” Karhuse said. “While federal funding for Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act could be used for technology integration, more schools are using these funds to save jobs and keep more teachers in the classroom.”

Many stakeholders are concerned that the shift to a competitive funding model will create disparities across schools and districts, because many schools do not have the resources to apply for competitive grants.

“This emphasis on competitiveness could mean that rural districts and children in the poorest parts of the country will be left behind,” said NSBA Executive Director Anne Bryant in a statement. “Those districts do not have the capacity to compete for grants—unless you want to shift money from teachers to grant writers.”

“Clearly, the schools and districts with strong and visionary tech integration leaders, transformational school and curriculum leaders, and skilled and experienced grant writers have a distinct advantage in accessing competitive funding,” said Don Knezek, CEO for the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). “Specific funding for schools with weak digital skills and low levels of technology use is not impossible in a competitive program, but for the programs to be effective for these schools will require carefully crafted eligibility rules.”

Besides sending letters, educators and organizations from across the United States also “Tweeted for Ed Tech” on May 13 in a national effort to tell Congress to fund EETT at $500 million for FY11.

Some 700 educators, with a collective following of about 300,000 Twitter users, sent more than 1,550 messages in support of EETT funding to key members of Congress, ISTE said—including Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Thad Cochran, R-Miss., the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Labor, HHS, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee; Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee; and Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., ranking member of the House Labor, HHS, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

Links:

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Education Technology

International Society for Technology in Education

National School Boards Association

National Association of Secondary School Principals

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Enterprising Instruction resource center. Using data to inform instruction is one of the Obama administration’s keys to effective school reform, and technology is helping a growing number of educators accurately identify their students’ needs and deliver targeted—and timely—interventions when appropriate. To benefit fully from such a data-driven instructional model, schools need a system for tying their instructional and administrative processes together—in effect, bringing an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) approach to the classroom. Go to:

Enterprising Instruction