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Editorial: Wags and Dogs

Default Lines for eSchool News, print edition, June 2009—"I’m so poor I can’t even pay attention," said White Sox outfielder Ron Kittle a few years back.

Our own hard times give added poignancy to his lament. In fact, recent declarations around Washington have me wondering who else is suffering from Kittle’s brand of attention-deficit disorder.

Johnny-come-lately fiscal conservatives, on the one hand, are lambasting President Barack Obama for allegedly swallowing federal provisions like an interloper at a wedding party. He’s squandering our children’s birthright, they complain.

Meanwhile, four leading ed-tech organizations have issued just the opposite objection. The president doesn’t want to spend enough to safeguard our children’s future, they say–at least not insofar as education technology is concerned.

The very day the administration released its 2010 budget proposals, the Consortium for School Networking, the International Society for Technology in Education, the Software and Information Industry Association, and the State Education Technology Directors Association issued a statement expressing their dismay . . . in unison, like the chorus in a Greek tragedy:

"The Obama administration has highlighted the nation’s need to advance rigorous college- and career-ready standards and high-quality assessments; P-20 data systems that foster continuous improvement; reforms that enhance teacher effectiveness; and effective interventions that improve student performance and increase classroom engagement. This cannot be done without leadership and expertise in technology.  

"We urge Congress to reject the administration’s dramatic cut to the Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) program (NCLB, Title II, Part D). Instead, we believe that Congress should invest in EETT at levels higher than last year’s appropriation of $269 million. The EETT program spurs innovation as well as provides teacher training and expertise in the use of technology to improve student achievement.

"With the historic level of funding provided through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), it appeared that the administration was prepared to invest significantly in educational technology, viewing it as an engine of change to modernize our education system. Instead, this cut stalls momentum, ignores demonstrated results, and undermines the progress being made in our nation’s classrooms through effective uses of technology to engage students, improve teacher quality, and individualize instruction for all kids."

But hold on there. As our recent story by Senior Editor Laura Devaney points out, the president’s 2010 EETT budget request doesn’t stand in isolation. It comes accompanied by the $650 million for fiscal years 2009 and 2010 contained in ARRA. So–assuming ARRA funding disbursements come in equal annual portions–the total EETT funding for 2009 would amount to $594 million. For 2010, the total would be $425 million. In other words, a two-year total of more than $1 billion would be committed to education technology under just this program.

Associations such as the four just quoted try to win for the nation’s schools the maximum support it’s possible to obtain. Squawking for more funding is part of their core mission. And that’s entirely understandable, because compared to the mountain of problems technology could help educators excavate, even $1 billion can seem like a molehill.

Nonetheless, it’s useful to recall that EETT isn’t the only deep pocket in town. eSchool News recently highlighted two other significant sources of ed-tech funding. One is the eRate. Another is the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

First, the eRate: as Managing Editor Dennis Pierce details in his eye-opening report, approximately $5 billion has gone aglimmering in this program since 1998, the victim of telecom givebacks, changing rules, fluctuating project prices, and shifting district priorities.

This has got to stop.

Making sure schools and libraries get every penny of the eRate funding they’re entitled to would be a worthy objective for the Obama administration as well as for education advocates at large. Reclaiming even a fraction of those unspent eRate funds might smartly shore up EETT funding levels, with no new funding required–especially if accompanied by more inclusive eRate-eligibility rules.

Second, BTOP: Another promising source of ed-tech funding may be found in this program’s allocations for broadband grants. Although not education-specific, more than $7 billion is available via ARRA for increasing broadband access, reports Assistant Editor Maya T. Prabhu. If educators write their grant proposals effectively, schools and colleges should be prime contenders for a major share of those new billions. (For expert advice on writing federal proposals, by the way, check out this recent Grants & Funding column by Deborah Ward.

Altogether, programs such as EETT, eRate, and BTOP amount to several billions of dollars that could become available for ed-tech projects. That’s not enough to bring state-of-the-art technology to bear on all the myriad challenges facing education, but it’s too much to overlook. So pay attention, please.

Of course, funding isn’t everything–a fact underscored by 19th century humorist Josh Billings (Henry Wheeler Shaw), who once observed: "Money will buy you a pretty good dog, but it won’t buy the wag of his tail."

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