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The New Approach to Reeling in Tech Funding

A grants expert explains how school tech leaders must secure their funding not just from one big federal fund, but from various avenues.

"We want a grant for 20 computers."

This was my directive from district administrators nearly 25 years ago. As a district grants specialist, I dutifully wrote the grant for computers so that the schools would be prepared for the 21st century. Back in the late 1980s, the computers themselves were the crux on the federal grant application.

But as I continue working as a grant specialist in this new age of districts needing "evidence of effectiveness" and "data-based decisions," it is no longer enough simply to request computers for the sake of becoming a tech-savvy school. A grant proposal must focus on a comprehensive, evidence-based, research-backed program. To compete for a federal grant in 2011, those computers, once the focus of the application, will be introduced as a tool, just as a textbook or science materials might be.

While our schools have been busy over the past 20 years securing wireless routers and laptops, there has been a major shift in the way education technology is funded. Simply put, technology funding is no longer its own category; rather, it's now integrated into a variety of other funds.

Part of the reason for this is the 2010 National Education Technology Plan, which states, "Technology should be an integral component of teaching methods courses and field experiences rather than treated as a discrete skill distinct from pedagogical application." There has been a gap between the potential of technology and its measurable impact on learning. Buying a cart of laptops or wiring a school is no longer the end goal. New federal priorities tell us that the ultimate result must be an increase in student achievement, and if technology can support this result and prove its worth, then technology can be an integral component of a grant application.

No More "Big One" to Catch

The proposed 2011 funding situation for Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) funds is uncertain. In fiscal year 2009, Congress provided the EETT with $270 million in funding plus a onetime infusion of $650 million through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Those funds are available through the end of FY 2011. The program received only $100 million in FY 2010, and there is no proposed funding for the program in FY 2011, so district leaders will have to find other means of keeping their technology budgets funded.

Paula Love helps district leaders secure funding.

The proposed 2011 federal consolidated education budget has new subsections, and the funds that previously had been allocated to EETT are now channeling into a subsection of the budget called "Effective Teaching and Learning for a Complete Education." The new proposed subsection includes the following programs in 2011:

  • Effective Teaching and Learning: Literacy ($450 million)
  • Effective Teaching and Learning: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics ($300 million)
  • Effective Teaching and Learning for a Well-Rounded Education ($265 million)

These new proposed subsections allow technology in education to be part of an integrated solution. For example, under the Literacy subsection, one goal is to improve instructional materials to increase literacy achievement. A district may discover that one of the most effective ways to achieve this goal is to implement online courses, thus tying technology into the funding request. As the 2011 budget is finalized in coming months, information about how these funds will be distributed will be announced.

Is the DOE Releasing Technology?

Some would assume the shift from EETT funding means the government is less supportive of technology, but Secretary of Education Arne Duncan claims that isn't the case. Rather, he says, its intent is to shift those funds into a broader funding bucket to encourage the integration of technology into a wide variety of programs, particularly the Effective Teaching and Learning subsections of the Department of Education's budget. The proposed shift in funding will change the way we K12 educators position technology in education. We must examine how we use technology as a teaching tool.

Educators know firsthand that technology offers individualized learning and increases the accessibility of information. To access technology funds in this new age, instructional technology directors will need to collaborate with subject area staff to demonstrate how technology will be an integral component of student success.

Current Funding Priorities

To fully take advantage of this shift in education technology funding, it's important to grasp several other changes at the Department of Education. Formula funding is on the decline, such as EETT grants, while discretionary (also known as competitive) funding is at an all-time high, representing nearly a quarter of all grant monies. The proposed 2011 budget includes a $4.9 billion increase in competitive grant funds over 2010.

New programs for which districts can apply include:

  • Race to the Top, a competitive grant program that was designed in part to encourage and reward states that are innovating and instituting reforms. The latest news from the Department of Education is that the 2011 competition may also include a grant program in which districts will be invited to apply directly for funds.
  • Investing in Innovation, which provides competitive grants that help improve K12 achievement and close achievement gaps, decrease dropout rates, increase high school graduation rates and improve teacher and school leader effectiveness.
  • Promise Neighborhoods, a discretionary grant open to nonprofits and higher education institutions and inspired by the Harlem Children's Zone. It dedicates funding for cradle-to-career programs designed to address poverty and represents a large part of the increase in competitive grants to states and districts.

In 2010, Race to the Top awarded 11 states and the District of Columbia with $4 billion for comprehensive reform. President Obama has requested an additional $1.35 billion for Race to the Top in 2011. The competition will be formally launched this spring.

Similarly, the Investing in Innovation (or i3) competition was launched in 2010, with $650 million awarded to nonprofit organizations, school districts, and institutions of higher education for research-based innovative programs that help close the achievement gap and improve outcomes for high-need students. The federal 2011 proposed budget for i3 includes $500 million to continue these competitive grants. The application and guidelines will be unveiled this spring.

Promise Neighborhoods has offered 21 planning grants to nonprofit organizations and institutions of higher education for comprehensive neighborhood programs focused on the needs of local schools. The 2011 budget calls for an additional $210 million to expand this program, with an announcement of guidelines expected this spring.

The Future?

District leaders can also look to the Education Technology Plan, which is released every five years, for a snapshot of federal priorities for the next several years. The 2010 plan, which was finalized in November 2010, calls for improved assessments, better infrastructures and online learning environments. It explains that technology must be centered on students, allowing them to take control of their own learning.

The Ed Tech Plan defines how technology ought to be used for increased student achievement: "A core set of standards-based concepts and competencies should form the basis of what all students should learn. Beyond that, students and educators should have options for engaging in learning. Technology should be leveraged to provide access to more learning resources than are available in classrooms."

The Ed Tech Plan goes one step further to explain why technology should be integrated into a variety of subject areas: "Whether the domain is English language arts, mathematics, sciences, social studies, history, art, or music, 21st-century competencies and such expertise as critical thinking, complex problem solving, collaboration and multimedia communication should be woven into all content areas. How we need to learn includes using the technology that professionals in various disciplines use. Professionals routinely use the Web and tools, such as wikis, blogs and digital content for the research, collaboration and communication demanded in their jobs.

"For students, using these real-world tools creates learning opportunities that allow them to grapple with real-world problems—opportunities that prepare them to be more productive members of a globally competitive workforce."

Keeping those priorities in mind, district administrators need to consider how technology might enhance grant proposals. If administrators do not request technology tools from other sources of funding, ranging from Title 1 grants to the discretionary grants mentioned above, their districts may lose out on key funding to support and increase technology programs.

Being Prepared

Despite their agreement that technology should be integrated into all federal programs, organizations such as the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) and the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) are concerned that losing EETT funding will lead to devaluing existing investments in school technology infrastructure. These organizations are asking the Department of Education to fund EETT at $500 million, instead of eliminating it altogether. The final federal budget will be announced this spring, but it is unlikely that EETT funding will be renewed at all.

Though technology-specific funding channels are scarce, technology is not disappearing from our classrooms. Rather, it's becoming an integrated part of data systems and student learning processes. IT directors who are prepared and educated will partner with other district personnel to ensure that technology is a key factor of success for communicating, accessing and sharing data, engaging students and, ultimately, increasing student achievement overall.

Paula Love is vice president of research and funding for RedRock Reports, which provides consulting, advisory and research services for K12 funding opportunities.