$500M Ed-Tech Grant Slated for Elimination
President Bush on Feb. 7 released his 2006 budget proposal, asking Congress to cut more than $1 billion in total education spending and eliminate entirely the $500 million Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) state block-grant program, the primary source of federal funding for school technology.
The massive, $2.5 trillion proposal includes a 1 percent across-the-board reduction for all discretionary spending programs and would earmark $56 billion for the U.S. Department of Education (ED) in 2006, down from more than $57 billion in 2005. If the president's budget is approved by Congress, it would mark the end of five consecutive years of increases in department spending, totaling more than $7.9 billion since 2001.
Of the 48 education programs slated for elimination in 2006, none stands to affect the ed-tech community more than the loss of EETT. Still reeling from a last-minute decision by Congress to cut EETT by nearly 30 percent in 2005--from $692 million in fiscal year 2004 to $500 million this fiscal year--several ed-tech advocates nationwide condemned Bush's proposed dismantling of the program as "short-sighted" and criticized the administration for failing to provide the leadership and funding necessary to support the use of technology in the nation's schools.
The Bush administration says its funding plan for schools focuses on doing away with substandard initiatives in favor of programs that work and practices the kind of fiscal restraint necessary to begin chipping away at the mounting federal deficit, which Bush has vowed to cut in half over the next four years.
Critics, meanwhile, say the elimination of EETT and other technology-specific education programs flies in the face of everything this administration has said regarding the important role technology must play in fostering widespread student achievement under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), implemented by Bush in 2001 and touted during his State of the Union address as a top concern during his second term.
"Last month," said Bob Moore, chairman of the board of directors for the nonprofit Consortium for School Networking, commenting on Feb. 7, "the Department of Education concluded in its National Education Technology Plan that 'technology ignites opportunities for learning, engages today's students as active learners, and prepares our nation for the demands of a global society in the 21st century.' Today, the administration has moved to zero out the central source of educational technology funding. This plainly shows that the administration is unwilling to put [its] money where the policy is."
"These proposed cuts send precisely the wrong message at the wrong time," added Jan Van Dam, a retired assistant superintendent and board president for the International Society for Technology in Education. "Educators around the country are grappling with implementing No Child Left Behind, capitalizing on every resource at their disposal to increase student achievement, student learning, teaching skills, and efficiency. This funding proposal is both counterproductive and ultimately tragic in that it deprives educators of tools they so desperately need and students of opportunities they so desperately desire."
Bush's proposed cuts to the education budget closely mirror figures inadvertently leaked to the public through a White House memorandum last June (see story: Bush FY 2006 cuts would irk educators). At the time of the leak, administration officials repeatedly denied that the memo--which pegged 2006 education funding at $55.9 billion--was anything but a hypothetical model for officials to work from as they began gathering data about their needs for the coming year, adding that decisions regarding the president's 2006 budget "would not be made for some time."
Now, as those reductions take shape almost precisely as outlined last June, ed-tech advocates nationwide worry that their worst fears are in danger of being realized.
"The administration's elimination of the EETT program will spell the end of meaningful technology training for the 2,600 teachers in Calcasieu Parish Public Schools, will result in greatly reduced technology opportunities for the 35,000 students who attend our schools, and will cause me to eliminate up to six full-time technology positions. The real-world impact of these cuts is extremely devastating," said Sheryl Abshire, instructional technology coordinator for this Louisiana district.
In defense of Bush's budget blueprint--and his decision to cut the half-billion-dollar EETT initiative in particular--ED contends that most schools today are farther along on the technology curve than they were several years ago, a reality that negates the need for "a state formula grant program targeted specifically on (and limited to) the effective integration of technology into schools and classrooms."
"We're in a different era than when the program started," explained senior department budget advisor Todd Jones during a conference call with reporters Feb. 7. "While educational technology is integral to all efforts in the education sphere . . . leadership in educational technology is not tied to one specific program."
Rather than rely on technology-specific funding from the federal government, Jones and other senior department officials recommend that schools tap funding coffers at the state and local levels. Pointing out that 91 percent of ed-tech funding is now achieved through such channels, Jones called state and local funding "the driving force behind educational technology."
Officials also sought to deflect criticisms of the ed-tech cuts by arguing that NCLB was designed so educators could find technology funding elsewhere in the federal budget, including in Title1 funds for disadvantaged students and in the Improving Teacher Quality grant program.
But ed-tech advocates have not found the department's rationale entirely persuasive, especially not where NCLB is concerned.
"This is not a technology issue; this is an education issue," said Anita Givens, board chair for the Washington, D.C.-based State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA). "In most states, EETT is the only source of federal funding to develop the infrastructure and data systems needed to implement NCLB's accountability goals and report on [Adequate Yearly Progress] requirements."
In fact, according to a recent SETDA report, 25 percent of the nation's state technology directors rely solely on federal education funding, including EETT, to provide technology access in their states' schools.
"These funds allow schools to build a productive workforce to compete in the global economy and offer an opportunity to improve teacher quality through distance learning programs," said Givens, who added, "These cuts will affect all of our nation's schools and students."
And it isn't educators alone who fear the consequences of the proposed cuts. Representatives of the ed-tech industry expressed their worries too.
"We are deeply concerned that this cut would greatly limit school capacity to implement learning technologies necessary to diagnose student academic needs and provide engaging instructional programs," said Mark Schneiderman, director of education policy for the Software and Information Industry Association. "Few disagree that educational technology is necessary to modernize our schools and reach the goals set by the No Child Left Behind Act. In fact, the administration sought $692 million for the program just last year."
In the conference call with reporters, senior department budget advisors, including Jones, insisted the leaner budget is adequate to meet the needs of the nation's schools, including the continued implementation of NCLB and its proposed expansion into high schools.
Like Bush's 2005 budget request, the 2006 model is weighted heavily in favor of NCLB priorities, including a $603 million increase in Title 1 spending (to $13.3 billion) to ensure the nation's neediest schools are making progress under NCLB, and a $508 million increase to special-education programs, bringing funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act up to $11.1 billon. Overall, federal spending on NCLB is slated to increase by nearly $1 billion to $25.3 billion, marking a 4 percent increase over 2005 enacted levels, officials said.
At the crux of the president's NCLB program this year is a new initiative intended to help usher NCLB accountability into the nation's high schools. Until this year, the federal law has focused mainly on improving student achievement and overall accountability in the nation's elementary and middle schools, with a special emphasis on reading in the younger grades. Under the president's 2006 budget proposal, schools would receive $1.5 billion to push the program into secondary schools. The majority of those funds ($1.2 billion) would go toward helping states implement an accountability framework and design interventions meant to boost student achievement. The remainder of the money would be used to measure student achievement in reading and mathematics; improve the reading skills of at-risk teenagers; boost funding for the Math and Science Partnerships program to help students perform at grade level in those subjects; and create a Community College Access program to provide high school students with more opportunities to take college-level courses.
Despite the swath cut through ed-tech programs, some see this latest initiative as one of the few bright spots in the president's plan.
"The Alliance for Excellent Education is pleased that President Bush is proposing to strengthen programs that support high school students by emphasizing the further development of the Striving Readers initiative, encouraging more rigorous coursework through expanded [Advanced Placement] and State Scholars programs, and requesting increased funding for Pell Grants," Bob Wise, the group's president, and former democratic governor of West Virginia, said in a statement about the budget. "At a time when only 32 percent of our high school students graduate ready for college, these initiatives will assist all students to achieve academic success."
U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings also emphasized programs for high schools.
"High schools are the portal to the future," she said. "A high school diploma must be a ticket to success in the 21st century. We've all seen the studies that show American students are losing significant ground in reading and math scores as they enter high school. We can do better, and our students deserve better."
The president's 2006 budget request also emphasizes school choice and the need for more highly qualified teachers. Aside from providing nearly $3 billion for the Teacher Quality State Grant program to support teacher training and recruitment, the president has asked for $500 million in funding for a new Teacher Incentive Fund, designed to attract the best teachers to serve in traditionally low-performing schools. The fledging initiative also includes loan forgiveness programs for teachers; $50 million to help promote school choice under NCLB; and $219 million to fund the creation of innovative charter schools nationwide.
With an eye toward increased accountability, Bush also has proposed the use of $412 million to help states implement NCLB's rigorous testing requirements. Other programs that received significant attention in his 2006 proposal include a $28 billion increase to student-aid programs through 2015. Chief among these proposed increases: a record $13.7 billion for Pell Grants to help underserved students get a college diploma and $50 million for the creation of a new Math-Science Scholars program that would provide up to $5,000 to low-income students pursuing advanced studies in these subject areas.
Aside from the state technology block-grant initiative, a handful of smaller ed-tech programs are in danger of elimination or reduction in Bush's plan for fiscal year 2006.
The Star Schools program, which received $21 million from Congress in 2005 to help underserved schools deploy advanced telecommunication services, would be shuttered completely. Bush also is asking Congress to eliminate the Community Technology Centers program, which last year received $5 million to provide federally subsidized computer centers for students in low-income areas, down 50 percent from 2004.
This marks the fifth consecutive year that Bush has lobbied to cut these programs. In his previous four attempts Congress has rebuffed his request, though there is no guarantee that will be the case in 2006.
Other notable programs slated for elimination in 2006 include the $438 million Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities state grant initiative; the $66.1 Regional Education Laboratories program for building research centers to provide high-quality education research and training; the $68.3 million Teacher Quality Enhancement program, designed to promote overall increases in teacher recruitment and licensure; and Even Start, a $225 million program aimed at improving early learning opportunities for students in the nation's poorest communities.
Education advocates who support these and other initiatives now in danger of extinction say they plan to take the fight to Congress, where lawmakers eventually will have the final say regarding which programs make it in 2006 and which don't.
Though she called Bush's budget request "devastating," Melinda George, executive director of SETDA, says she remains hopeful. While the budget debate begins with the president's request, she said, it ends with Congress. A lot can happen between now and then, she added--as long as educators make their voices heard.
Bush's 2006 U.S. Department of Education Budget Request
Consortium for School Networking
International Society for Technology in Education
Software and Information Industry Association
State Educational Technology Director's Association
Alliance for Excellent Education
U.S. Department of Education
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES