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'Dear Senator…'

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To save the future of technology in schools, members of Congress needto hear your success stories—from you.

Policy & AdvocacyI WALKED INTO the senator’s outer office a few minutes late, having gotten lost in the underground tunnel that connects the two Senate office buildings near the Capitol in Washington, DC. I checked in with the receptionist, who called the staffer I was supposed to meet. In the meantime, approximately 20 people, all wearing identical T-shirts bearing a slogan about immigration reform, crowded into the office to drop off information about their cause.

While I waited, two impeccably—and expensively— dressed men dropped off a book of photographs suitable for display on a coffee table, and a notebook of information for a meeting the next day. In one corner of the office, a staffer was meeting with two people to talk about saving the Columbia River Valley, while another staffer was listening to a small group of veterans voice their concerns. My contact came into the office, apologized for the crowd and lack of space, and suggested that we just stand and talk. I told her that I was there to support two issues:

  • reinstatement of funding—at least $496 million per year—for Title II D of the No Child Left Behind Act (Enhancing Education Through Technology).
  • the E-rate, specifically bills S. 241 and HR 2533, which would prevent stoppages in E-rate funding such as occurred last year.

I then said I had anecdotal evidence from her senator’s state to illustrate the importance of both concerns. I had supporting research and statistics (including how much money from EETT and the E-rate had been distributed to the state over the past few years), and I was willing to answer any questions or find further information for her. Since we were standing in a crowded office, I figured I would give her the choice of which issue to address first.

Her answer was actually more encouraging than I had hoped: The senator strongly believed in both programs, had supported them in the past, and would support them in the future. The staffer had two simple requests of me: She wanted me to send in anecdotal reports (and research if possible) showing how EETT and the E-rate has affected students and teachers in the senator’s state, and then keep in touch to remind the senator of the importance of these issues. She nodded toward the crowd in the office and shrugged her shoulders, as if to say there is a lot of competition for the senator’s attention. I gave her some handouts I had on both programs, as well as one on the role of technology in science and mathematics initiatives; then I left her with my business card and departed. The entire conversation took less than five minutes. Appointments at two other legislators’ offices went similarly.

What really has an impact on legislators is hearing fromsomeone who cares about kids and has seen the power of technology in a child’s hand.

A Day for Advocacy

My visit to the Capitol was part of last month’s Washington Advocacy Event, sponsored by the International Society for Technology in Education, the Consortium for School Networking, and the Software & Information Industry Association. The day started with a briefing from four congressional staffers updating us on issues related to technology and education. We were informed that Congress still has not passed the discretionary component of the Higher Education Authorization Act. This section of the bill addresses vocational education and high school reform, among other things. We also learned that the House Committee on Education and the Workforce is looking closely at the Bush administration’s proposals on competitiveness, and science and technology. The committee also has begun to conduct hearings on NCLB, and plans on having more. Key issues under examination include: assessment for students with special needs, the growth model for use in AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress), public school choice and supplemental services, and measuring the graduation rate. The committee is well aware of the administration’s proposal to eliminate EETT.

On the Senate side, the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions will begin to hold its hearings on NCLB next year. The committee is particularly interested in globalization, math and science, competitiveness, and high school reform.

Members of both houses have introduced legislation (S. 241 and HR 2533) that will keep E-rate funds flowing (ERate is the fourth-largest federally funded education program) by exempting the funds from the Anti-Deficiency Act. The ADA is a complex measure too convoluted to fully flesh out here. Suffice to say that it serves as a watchdog over federally funded agencies, and that its provisions are what caused the delays in moving E-rate funds to school districts last year. Receiving that money is extremely important to school districts, many of which rely on E-rate funds to install, upgrade, and maintain networks.

When members of Congress were asked what educators could do to help them understand the importance of technology in education, all responded similarly: They want to hear stories from schools in their districts and states. They want to know that their constituents benefited from these programs. The House Committee on Education and the Workforce wants to hear about research linking EETT and academic achievement.

There are people in Washington working hard to keep your issues regarding technology and education in front of members of Congress and their staffs. Ed-tech lobbyists lined up an average of three meetings for each of the 175 or so of us who went to the Hill. They provided us with talking points, fact sheets to leave behind, and enormously helpful information— such as how much E-rate and EETT funding went to each state or congressional district over the past eight years.

What really has an impact on legislators, however, is hearing from someone who cares about kids and has seen the power of technology in a child’s hand. In this case, I was that person, and for a moment, educational technology was the most important issue to the staffer in front of me—until the next constituent came in to talk about protecting the forest, or the trade imbalance. These folks already have received a thank you e-mail from me, and they will hear from me at least once a month, hopefully each time with a different story from a different school in their state. You don’t have to get up and go to Washington to have the same impact. You have stories from your schools every day. Send some to your senators and representatives, both in Congress and at the state level. It will make a difference.

Geoffrey H. Fletcher is editor-at-large of T.H.E. Journal and executive director of T.H.E. Institute.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.

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