Make It Stretch

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As technology funding dwindles, districts must use the resourcesthey do have to maximum advantage.

Make It StretchIF YOU'RE A K-12 EDUCATOR traveling downthe information superhighway, you're likely to hit some speedbumps. And the biggest of those will be a lack of money.While legislators proclaim the need for 21st-century skills ineducation, federal funding for technology-- the underwriter ofthose skills-- is shrinking. According to the 2008 "NationalTrends" report from the State Educational Technology DirectorsAssociation (SETDA), funding through theNo Child Left Behind Act plunged 45 percent-- from $461million to $253 million-- between fiscal years 2005 and 2006.

Since many states rely on NCLB for most of their ed tech financing, they've had to cut back on funds for school districts. States also vary widely in how they allocate available resources and in the mandates they place on schools for how they can spend technology dollars. So, although some states have innovative technology projects-- Illinois, for instance, has a School Technology Revolving Loan Program that allows schools to borrow money from the state at low interest rates to support technology infrastructure-- not every district can rely on these initiatives to fill a specific technology need.

But there's nothing stopping schools from stretching the resources they do have, while scaling down IT requirements. Tracy Smith, director of technology for Idaho's Fremont County Joint School District 215, has established an innovative program to make the most of what the district receives in state and federal funding.

With about 2,100 students in nine elementary, middle, and high schools spread over 160 square miles in rural Idaho, Fremont County faces serious technology challenges. "Our district gets roughly $70,000 a year, and most of that we use to pay for networking, bandwidth, and so on," Smith says. His budget only allows for a few additional computers every year. Students are one or two steps behind the latest computing technology, and for elementary school classrooms, there aren't funds to replace every computer. So Smith turned to NComputing, a vendor of low-cost virtualization software and hardware, to purchase a device that enables a single PC to be shared by multiple students at once. The result gives every student in a classroom computer access at a dramatically lower cost than the price of purchasing a new machine for each one.

"We had five computers in every elementary classroom, but we could replace only one of those five," he says. "So we ended up with one that was new, but four were Windows 98 machines. We didn't have the money to replace them all. We had 240 computing environments to replace and it would have cost us nearly $150,000. So I thought I'd try NComputing's X300 access device. I could attach three computers to that one new computer in each classroom-- and I could do it for $70 per environment, a fraction of the cost."

Smith bought 80 kits from NComputing and replaced 240 environments for about $16,000. He kept the old monitors, keypads, and mice. In the elementary school's two labs, he set up four new machines and attached seven NComputing units to them.

"There have been some drawbacks and workarounds," Smith says. "The machines run slower than if each student had his own new computer, and some apps won't work. But we look at it as $70 versus $700 for a new machine. That's easy math."

After he rolled out his program, a neighboring school district adopted it as well, Smith adds. "We're seeing much more of the client/server environment in schools. It's also a maintenance issue-- you need to maintain only one computer instead of several."

Even the most stringent penny pinching doesn't go very far, however, if schools don't have much money to begin with. "Most of the time, schools have a very limited budget," says Gerry Balbier, vice president of innovative programs at Apangea Learning, developer of SmartHelp, a web-based instructional program that combines proprietary learning technology with live online tutoring from teachers. Balbier, previously the senior program officer for educational programs at The Heinz Endowments, explains that Apangea works with schools to obtain state and federal grants. "In some cases, we're able to get private foundations interested. Sometimes they'll set up a matching fund, or at least a seed grant, and the schools then pay on their own. That enables the fund to mitigate the risk."

"We don't see any sign that there will bean increase for E-Rate funding. But every yearschools can use unused funds from previous years."

The trick to increasing the odds of winning a grant, federal or otherwise, is to "show the results that you expect," says Balbier. "We may say to a funding source, for example, ‘Here's the need: There are kids who are one or two grades behind, and the traditional school day is not long enough to instruct them. But with this technology, you will have results in one or two years.' So schools must identify the need for which tutoring and technology are solutions, implement the solutions correctly, track the results, use existing resources, and in the meantime we get additional resources for them."

Technology funding can come from sources that may be overlooked, points out Balbier. As an example, he cites The Grable Foundation, a Pittsburgh-based organization that administers educational grants in Pennsylvania. In 2007 the foundation set up a matching grant program whereby a school could propose an instructional plan and Grable would provide partial funding for the first year, with the school taking over in subsequent years. "Eight school districts in the region participated in the first year," he says. "All but one have renewed the program and are using 100 percent of their own budget to continue it."

Another potential source of funding is the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, a philanthropic entity that supports a variety of K-12 initiatives-- from teacher preparation to technology integration-- in West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania. In addition, there are state programs that may not be earmarked for educational technology but may still fund it. For example, the SETDA report notes that Maryland doesn't include educational technology as a line item in the state budget, but that schools can qualify for it under the state's Bridge to Excellence program if they can specify how the technology integrates with the curriculum and professional development.

Schools must explore these and other financing options as federal funds dry up, advises Scott Weston, executive director of communications at Funds for Learning, an organization that helps schools and technology vendors comply with the requirements of the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) E-Rate program, which provides schools and libraries with discounted telecom and internet services. "The amount of money available for E-Rate has remained constant since 1997, at a quarter of a billion dollars a year," Weston says. "We don't see any sign that there will be an increase for E-Rate funding. But every year schools can use unused funds from previous years."

In fact, in June the FCC ordered about $600 million in unused E-Rate funds from previous years to be rolled into the pool of available monies for the 2008 funding year, which began July 1.

The FCC directive notes that tens of millions of committed dollars go unused because of missed deadlines, staff turnover, lack of understanding of program rules, and overestimation of the amount of funding needed-- all of which schools need to rectify, Weston says. He adds that K-12 administrators must also evaluate what comes under the umbrella of technology: Its definition is often broader than expected, and services such as critical network electronics or infrastructure may be eligible for funding. "That's one strategy schools can use," he says. And the upside of using E-Rate funding is that although the school must bear a portion of the cost, there's generally no restriction on where that amount comes from, unless it's from a service provider with which the school is already doing business via the E-Rate program.

Ultimately, notes Apangea's Balbier, his role, like that of so many funding consultants and proposal writers, is to lessen the pain of budget cuts in school districts. But schools must do their part to help, he says. "In some of the proposals I work on, there's not enough data on how they're going to use the funds. They wait too long to get data on how kids did as a result of grants. They need to focus on ongoing results and also track the implementation of the program. We've seen perfectly good programs fail because of inadequate implementation."

Rama Ramaswami is a business and technology writer basedin New York City.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.

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