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Editorial: Morning in America

Default Lines for eSchool News, print edition, March 1, 2009—After a years-long slumber, it’s time to stretch, yawn, and notice a new day dawning all around us. In the dim morning light, it appears we’ve been transported to a place not quite like anywhere we’ve visited before. If I’m not mistaken, we seem at this precise moment to be somewhere deep in the trees—so deep, in fact, we might be oblivious to the forest stretching far beyond the limits of our immediate vision.

In other words, maybe we can’t see the forest for the trees.

At least, that’s the thought that occurs to me as I absorb the early responses from some education advocates to the stimulus package being signed into law today by President Barack Obama.

The stumbling, bumbling run-up to the legislation probably accounts for much of the sour reaction. I certainly shared the sharp disappointment as we watched the initially heralded $1 billion ed-tech allocation cut back to $650 million. Yet, isn’t it ironic? We’ve arrived at a place where we’re glum because a federal allocation for school technology contains just an “m” instead of a “b.”

Hang on just a minute: $650 million for the Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) program is nearly two and half times the amount allocated last year under the Bush administration. Many Republicans, as you might recall, wanted to eliminate EETT altogether. So we were darn glad only months ago that we were able to hang on to the $272 million eventually approved.

Viewed from that perspective, $650 million doesn’t look so very bad. It isn’t enough, to be sure, but it is the largest allocation of its kind in five years, and that’s better than a poke in the eye.

It’s also not the last word. Let’s keep in mind, please, the stimulus package is becoming law just 28 days into the new administration. Education advocates will have plenty more chances to seek more-fully adequate funding for school technology.

As a matter of fact, it would be a mistake to focus on EETT as the sole source of federal funding for education technology.

The overall stimulus package contains some $105.9 billion in federal funds for education. And, as those wretched bankers like to point out, such funding is fungible.

If you have federal dough to help modernize the elementary school, for example, that assistance from Washington can spare you from having to redirect budgeted technology dollars to the needed modernization project – not to mention that the modernization project itself more than likely will include upgrading the school’s technology.

But bookkeeping aside, what has happened in the early hours of this new day might signal authentic change on a large scale. We might be witnessing the beginning of an era that brings Washington’s education agenda into closer alignment with state and local education institutions and agencies. For at least half a century, our nation has largely resisted federal involvement in education.

In The Doyle Report, Feb. 13, education pundit Dennis P. Doyle cataloged the key reasons concisely:  “. . . Education was afflicted with a political 3 ‘R’s’: race, religion, and region . . .  Northerners thought that a federal role would further reinforce racial segregation; Southerners thought it would lead to integration; Catholics thought that a federal role would eliminate the practice of public support for religiously affiliated schools, and non-Catholics hoped it would; and everyone believed in local control.”

The recent election offers hope that we might finally be ready to rise above impediments of “race, religion, and region.” Local control remains a core value, but the scope of the challenge demands a more nuanced approach. The challenges and complexity of contemporary schooling require the efforts and resources of our entire society.

Not that everyone sees it that way, naturally. In the recent congressional debate, some senators actually railed against what they dubbed “generational theft,” arguing that the costs of investments in social resources would snatch opportunity from future generations.

Generational theft! What gall.

Apart from sheer hypocrisy, after nearly a decade of unbridled spending on war and the upward redistribution of wealth, such an argument is also breathtakingly obtuse. Allowing young people to enter the future unprepared to succeed in the 21st century would be the genuine disservice. A well-schooled, thoroughly educated citizenry represents our best hedge against future economic hardship.

So that’s why we should be generally encouraged by the new direction we’re beginning to discern in these early hours – the disappointment notwithstanding that did accompany some of the specifics of the stimulus package.

For the first time in nearly a decade, the president and most members of Congress seem to recognize there is a significant role for the federal government in education . . . and that their role doesn’t amount merely to holding educators’ feet to the fire.

Let’s hope this happy feeling lasts at least until Noon.

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