Tech in Schools: Federal Cuts Sow Concern

There's a sense of urgency among the administrators of schools in Elmore County, Ala., who this summer are outfitting 80 middle and high school classrooms with laptops, projectors, and other high-tech gadgets. They want to get their classrooms ready for the fall. But they're also antsy because they don't know how they'll pay for keeping the machines running in the long term.

The upgrades are part of a U.S. program aimed at putting computers and other tech gear in classrooms. But the federal government is paying only part of the up-front costs. Elmore officials have yet to figure out how they'll pay for ongoing expenses that include training teachers how to use the equipment. "This is one-time money," says Davis Brock, director of technology for Elmore County's public schools. "At some point there are going to be recurring costs."

Brock's concern is shared by administrators and teachers around the country who have seen federal funding for classroom technology decline over the past half-decade. The Obama Administration in May proposed slashing funding for Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT), one of the main government sources of technology for public schools, to $100 million in 2010, a 63% decline from this year's $269 million.

Many in education are calling into question how high a priority the new Administration is placing on technology in education. Soon after taking office, President Barack Obama publicly stressed the role of tech in the classroom to help America compete "with kids in Beijing for the high-tech, high-wage jobs of the future." But his budget proposal is "in conflict with that vision," says Mary Ann Wolf, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Assn.

seeking "smart classrooms"

Launched as part of the No Child Left Behind education reforms in 2002, EETT is designed to train more teachers to use technology in lessons and let states allocate federal grants to projects such as the "smart classrooms" being installed in Elmore County. The government has spent the same amount or less on EETT each year since 2002, when the program received $690 million.

And while the government has set aside an additional $650 million of the stimulus package for EETT projects over the next two years, educators fret that one-time spending—while helpful in buying needed equipment—won't cover costs for upkeep and teacher training. "The real cost of using technology wisely has to do with professional development on a fairly long term," says Dennis Small, director of educational technology for the state of Washington's public schools.

Districts are scrambling to figure out which technology will be cheapest to sustain over time. "People realize there's a funding cliff," says Don Knezek, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education. Jim Shelton, the U.S. Education Dept.'s assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement, concedes that states are being encouraged to "fund things now that are going to give them the capability to do significant work in the future even if they have less resources in the future." He suggests, for example, that states start using electronic reading materials to defray textbook costs.

The plan to decrease federal funding for EETT puts more of a burden on states at a time when their funds are drying up. Washington has cut at least 12 high-profile school tech directors from its payrolls, Small says. California has increased class size to reduce the need for layoffs. "We work with less, and we try to do more," says Katherine Hayden, a professor of educational technology at California State University at San Marcos who works on EETT projects with school districts in the region.

a new federal plan coming in early 2010

Cutbacks aren't keeping some states from launching ambitious programs. In June, Maine said it's broadening a plan to equip middle school students with Apple (AAPL) laptops to all high schools that choose to take part. The program does not use any federal dollars; it redirects district funds that would otherwise be used to build computer labs, says David Connerty-Marin, director of communications for the Maine Education Dept.

The U.S. Education Dept.'s Shelton says one of the challenges of investing heavily in school technology is a lack of broad research about what tools and techniques are effective. Last August, Congress approved a new National Center for Research in Advanced Information & Digital Technologies, a nonprofit that will be charged with tracking the progress of many of the programs that result from the stimulus package. "What we ought to be doing is getting short-term feedback and refining the approach so it actually gets better," he says.

Intel (INTC) and Apple are sponsoring Project RED, a year-long national study of various methods for reducing educational costs through technology. The researchers will share findings with state decision makers throughout the project, which will be completed in June 2010. "We believe the data will demonstrate the financial impact of delivering technology in education," says Eileen Lento, a government and education strategist for Intel. "Not only are we finding out how to do it more effectively but we're finding out how to do it more efficiently."

Some worries over the future of federal funding may be addressed in the first quarter of 2010, when the U.S. Education Dept. unveils a new national education-technology plan to take effect the following year. "We see educational technology as being something that is going to be a core element of education," Shelton says. "Any signal that people are taking from the cuts and budgets this year are misinterpretations." Shelton wouldn't comment on whether the new plan will include additional funds for technology. For now, educators remain skeptical, says ISTE's Knezek: "They know that when the stimulus runs out, the chance of increasing the $100 million is unlikely."

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