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Have stimulus funds helped spur educational technology gains?

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.

North Carolina public school leaders worry that growing enrollment and a cessation of stimulus funds could make potential budget cuts even harder to absorb.

The state’s public education budget has been reduced for the last two years, and in the coming year, federal stimulus funds that helped in the past will be gone. At the same time, student enrollment in the state has increased by more than 40,000 since 2006.

The Office of State Budget and Management has asked the Department of Public Instruction to show how it would handle cuts of 5 percent or 10 percent.

State Superintendent June Atkinson says both would mean teacher layoffs and larger classroom sizes. But with North Carolina facing a potential $3 billion budget gap, lawmakers say some cuts are unavoidable.

Conflicting Missions and Unclear Results: Lessons from the Education Stimulus Funds,” a December 2010 report from Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit school reform group, indicates that the to-date results of stimulus funds significantly lag behind the ambitious education intentions of the law.

“The ARRA has played an important role in closing district budget gaps created by state and local revenue losses, sustaining education spending, and saving jobs,” notes the report, which did not focus on educational technology in particular. “But that success in closing state and local budget gaps is only temporary; districts will face even greater pain once funds go away. And ARRA’s largest funding streams—the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, Title I, and IDEA—have had only limited reform impact.”

Bellwether researchers, along with consultants from Education First Consulting, a national education policy and strategic consulting firm, identified emerging themes among states as a result of ARRA funding and its larger implications for school reform.

“ARRA funds were intended to counter the reactionary economic impact of state and local budget cuts while accelerating state and local education reform efforts,” the report says. “Indeed, these funds were sufficient to make up for K-12 funding shortfalls in the majority of states. But in many cases, the funds simply helped districts tread water, as several states reduced education budgets by roughly the same amounts they received in ARRA allocations.”

Bellwether’s researchers found several key themes emerging from states’ and districts’ experiences in spending stimulus funds, including:

  • Districts used stimulus funds primarily to maintain spending levels in the face of state and local budget cuts. But some districts also used the funds to move forward with reforms at the same time, particularly in the area of human resources.
  • Mixed messages from senior Education Department (ED) officials, multiple competing priorities, and delays in receiving official guidance from ED and states created confusion at the district level about the purpose of stimulus funds and how they should be used to preserve jobs and advance school reform.
  • In many districts, inertia and existing processes, rather than reform priorities, drove allocation and distribution of stimulus funds.
  • In districts that did use stimulus funds for a more strategic end, local leadership, greater capacity, and idiosyncratic local factors, rather than federal policy decisions, were the causes.
  • Budget pressures on states and districts are proving to be even greater and longer-lasting than initially expected and are a long-term and systemic problem rather than a temporary one.

“The federal approach to education reform has tended to focus on specific reform ideas—such as standards, accountability, or identification and equitable distribution of effective teachers—while ignoring the underlying district structural and budget context in which reforms must be implemented,” the authors wrote.

The emerging themes identified in the Bellwether study have implications for education policy and practice, particularly as greater attention is paid to how federal dollars are used to drive school reform at the elementary and secondary levels.

These include:

  • Federal policy makers should not expect federal funds to generate school reform unless they are attached to clear reform requirements. Policy makers can combine stimulus and reform but must acknowledge the trade-offs, structure the funding accordingly, and communicate their priorities and goals clearly to recipients of funds.
  • Competitive funding programs, such as Race to the Top, appear to be more effective in driving change than formula-driven programs, through which most education stimulus funds were distributed.
  • Federal policies that prevent districts from using stimulus funds for practices known to be ineffective may be more effective than policies that encourage spending those funds on new school reform activities.
  • Federal policies and spending should be crafted with the goal of helping districts make hard choices to address unsustainable cost structures rather than simply postpone the tough decisions.

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