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Fueling education’s digital shift

Funding opportunities under ESSA are sure to improve technology adoption
Paula Love, the “Funding Doctor,” brings decades of experience to developing grant strategies for state and local educational agencies, schools and institutions. She writes DA's monthly School Funding Report.
Paula Love, the “Funding Doctor,” brings decades of experience to developing grant strategies for state and local educational agencies, schools and institutions. She writes DA's monthly School Funding Report.

K12 education is making strides in the digital shift. According to MDR’s 2015 EdNET Insight survey, more than 50 percent of curriculum directors anticipate a significant conversion from print to digital materials within the next three years.

And it appears this shift is about to get a big boost from the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the nation’s new education law, which is poised to provide the funding and flexibility to immerse U.S. schools in digital learning.

Policy, funding woes

The digital shift has been a slow and often painful transition for K12 schools, fraught with barriers. Districts identify funding as the number one obstacle to digital adoption, according to the Center for Digital Education. Outdated state policies are also cited as a hurdle.

Many have not even updated their definition of instructional materials to include digital content.

In addition, federal education dollars often come with tightly prescribed spending guidelines and little flexibility at the local level to fund a digital shift. Although federal programs—such as Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation (i3)—have pushed the needle closer by investing in programs to increase the use of technology, these grants have not impacted the vast majority of U.S. schools.

Similarly, private foundations and organizations—including the Gates Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and the Blended and Online Learning Foundation—aid in the effort.

But again, the effect of these efforts has not yet been realized on a broad scale.

ESSA support 

The new ESSA law strongly supports the shift—both in language and funding. Under ESSA, expect to see an increase in the prevalence as well as the rate of adoption of digital learning materials.

ESSA represents a major swing in how edtech can be funded, by giving greater flexibility to state and local decision-makers. From new block grants to innovative discretionary grants, key programs authorized by ESSA will fuel and expand the digital learning shift in the United States.

A new $1.65 billion block grant under ESSA will allow schools to use up to 60 percent of funds—almost $900 million annually—for the effective use of technology. The block grant, named the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant, requires districts to spend at least 20 percent to help students become well-rounded and another 20 percent to help kids be safe and healthy. The remaining 60 percent can be used for the effective use of technology. States and districts are expected to have significant flexibility in determining how these funds are spent.

Another ESSA program that will boost edtech funding is the Education Innovation & Research grant. Modeled after the current i3 program, this grant will fund the development and implementation of innovative approaches to improve student learning. Approaches must be evidence-based and can include strategies such as personalized and blended learning. Funding for this grant program for FY2017 is estimated to be $70 million, increasing to nearly $90 million by FY2019.

ESSA will also create common definitions for many ed-tech terms, including “blended learning,”  “digital learning” and even “technology” to ensure consistency in how it is implemented.

This tech-supported funding coincides with the growing adoption of digital learning materials by K12 districts. Several states—including California, Indiana and Texas—have revised instructional materials guidelines to allow districts to use funding traditionally earmarked as “textbook dollars” to buy digital instructional materials. And North Carolina took it a step further by passing a state law requiring districts to buy only electronic textbooks and materials by 2017.

Collaborate, advocate and plan

It’s time to collaborate at local and state levels to prepare to make the most of this digital funding boon. Districts should develop a plan to enhance digital learning, from device management to pedagogical considerations. The State Educational Technology Directors Association offers recommendations for navigating the digital shift.

With the groundwork laid, you will be ready to maximize the ESSA funding that comes your way to make effective digital learning a reality for your students.

Paula Love, the “Funding Doctor,” brings decades of experience to developing grant strategies for state and local educational agencies, schools and institutions. To subscribe to our monthly School Funding Report go to http://DAmag.me/sf.