School budgets are about to be squeezed when the federal stimulus funds run out.

Nearly two years after the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) was passed, two new reports offer varying perspectives on how successful the billions of dollars in federal stimulus funds were in spurring educational technology gains and school reform.

One report, from the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), highlights important educational technology gains across many states, while another report takes a more critical look at the effect that federal stimulus funds have had on education and school reform in general. Both reports warn that the future will be less than smooth for cash-strapped districts once the stimulus funds run out.

The Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) state block-grant program received $650 million under ARRA. In FY2010, EETT suffered cuts that brought its funding to $100 million, and the Obama administration has proposed eliminating EETT altogether in FY2011, instead making educational technology funding a key part of its school reform and improvement programs.

In SETDA’s report, “ARRA Investments in Technology, Innovation, and K-12 Reform: The Digital Education Funding Cliff,” the organization notes that the budget cut of nearly 65 percent to regular EETT funding in FY10, coupled with the administration’s request to eliminate the program in its FY11 budget, “has slowed the pace of [educational technology] implementation” within many states.

“While students and teachers have benefited from the long-standing state-federal educational technology partnership in place since 1994, states are adjusting plans in a time of great uncertainty,” SETDA says.

Still, SETDA notes that educational technology stimulus funds are driving innovations in teaching and learning, because most states are using multiple approaches to transform teaching and learning. The funds also are scaling up state-developed innovations, with some state models serving as inspiration for other states’ educational technology initiatives.

What’s more, a September 2010 Government Accountability Office report indicated that 47 percent of school districts in a survey of 16 states spent more than 25 percent of their Title I stimulus funds on purchasing educational technology, instructional materials, and providing professional development for instructional staff.

State initiatives

Maine is using its educational technology stimulus funds to enhance awareness of open education resources. The state hopes to create or develop content-specific communities to support student achievement and create more effective teachers by identifying open educational resources, training teachers, and supporting the development of additional open educational resources.

Kansas used its EETT stimulus funds to create the Technology Rich Classroom (TRC), which is built upon a model created over the past seven years. The program provides evidence that when integrated into a 21st-century classroom model and supported by ongoing teacher professional development, educational technology can improve student learning. Kansas required its local school systems to develop teams that would build the capacity to integrate educational technology into classrooms using research-based instructional methods.

South Dakota’s Stimulating Innovation grant encourages the effective integration of educational technology through high-quality professional development standards. Designed to enhance 21st-century skills instruction and improve student academic achievement, it encourages the use of educational technology models that can be widely implemented as best practices by other states and local educational agencies. The project aims to increase student achievement through technology use, build 21st-century skills in staff and students, increase technology integration among staff and students, and advance the development of system-wide ed-tech integration programs.

A rough road ahead

While the stimulus funds have helped states and school districts create or enhance several educational technology programs, many states wonder how they will fill the gaps when that funding is gone.

“As of the … publication of this report, September 30, 2011 [the date by which all stimulus funds must be spent] appears to represent a very real and very steep digital education funding cliff for America’s students and teachers,” SETDA’s report warns.