Sleepless in Washington

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Ed tech money is finally flowing from Capitol Hill. So why are education leaders so filled with angst? Because of a nightmare scenario in which the funding goes wasted.

Sleepless in WashingtonIN "TALKIN' WORLD WAR III BLUES," Bob Dylan dreams he is walking in World War III. He talks to a psychiatrist, who reveals he has been having a similar dream. Dylan notes, "Now it seems/Everybody's having them dreams."

It's a thought that sprang to mind during my recent trip to Washington, DC, to meet with the board of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), and visit with people at the Department of Education and with congressional staffers. The meetings focused on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), also known as the economic stimulus package.

Of course, the nightmare striking so many education leaders in the nation's capital right now is not quite as foreboding as what Dylan sang about. But like the song says, everybody is having the same one: The year is 2011, and unopened boxes of computers and software are stacked in the backs of classrooms across America-- technology purchased with ARRA money, wasting away, unused.

This is not an unreasonable fear. The more than $10 billion in Title I grants alone provided to schools by the stimulus bill is a daunting amount of money to spend-- not to mention the nearly $12 billion in funding for the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and $55 billion in state stabilization money. And this is in addition to the fiscal year 2009 Title I funds that districts were already slated to receive.

The first 50 percent of the ARRA Title I money reached the states by the end of last month, and, encouraged by the DoE, many states will soon be forwarding the money along to school districts. Educators must not only spend the money prudently but spend it quickly. According to guidelines submitted by the DoE, "In the absence of a waiver, an LEA [local educational agency] must obligate 85 percent of its total FY 2009 Title I, Part A, funds (including ARRA funds) by Sept. 30, 2010. Any remaining FY 2009 Title I, Part A, funds will be available for obligation until Sept. 30, 2011."

To many school districts, technology is an excellent one-time purchase that can fulfill the requirement of spending money quickly. Any educator seasoned in the use of technology knows it's more complicated than that.

In simple terms, school districts have a little more than two years to unload the money they're getting.

Under the terms of ARRA, districts must use federal money to supplement-- not supplant-- the state or local funding used to support their educational programs. In other words, Title I funds must be used to pay for goods and services that are not being financed by local or state money.

As a result, Title I recipients will be looking for fresh ways to spend their share of the stimulus funds. To many of them, technology seems to be a logical place to start: It's an excellent one-time purchase that can fulfill the requirement of spending money quickly, and it doesn't have to be sustained beyond the two years of the stimulus package. Any educator seasoned in the use of technology knows it's more complicated than that. Every piece of technology purchased also needs to be accompanied by technical support, as well as training in how to use it and how to use it successfully with students. And almost every technology purchase will put demands on school and district networks.

Finally, technologies don't last forever. Districts that plan well refresh their computers every three to five years. Today's technology purchases will need to be upgraded or replaced soon enough.

Fortunately, there is help on the horizon, starting with the DoE guidelines that accompany the ARRA funding and provide districts with ideas on how to best spend their portion of the Title I pot. These guidelines, available here, provide eight "examples of potential uses of the Title I, Part A, recovery funds that are allowable under Title I and consistent with ARRA principles." While these are only examples, Title I coordinators should pay attention to the spirit of what the DoE is suggesting. One example addresses programs for students to meet outside of the normal school day, before or after school, during the summer, or over an extended school year; another example encourages pre-K programs. Two others focus on professional development for teachers and principals-- one on using data to inform and improve instruction, and one on using coaches.

Two of the eight examples address technology specifically:

  • Providing new opportunities for Title I schoolwide programs for secondary school students to use high-quality online courseware as supplemental learning materials for meeting mathematics and science requirements.
  • Using longitudinal data systems to drive continuous improvement efforts focused on improving achievement in Title I schools.

The nightmarish thought of ARRA money being squandered does not have to become reality. There is a better future out there, one in which ed tech money is not wasted and districts can boast of the benefits brought by the multitude of purchases they have made with the funding they received. I can't say I've been to the mountaintop, but I have had a dream.

It's a dream in which the district's technology director and its Title I coordinator sit down and talk about their needs. The Title I leader talks about where he would like to see an emphasis on school improvement from the district. The technology director brings out technology plans and ideas on how to approach applying for the No Child Left Behind Act's competitive Title II-D money under ARRA.

In one state at least, I see my dream coming true. With help from the ed tech staff at Alabama's Department of Education, Title I money is funding 21st-century classrooms in each of the state's seven high schools in need of improvement. These technology-rich classrooms not only have computers, projection devices, and other technologies, but the Title I dollars also are funding part-time technology coaches for teachers and part-time evaluators to try to gauge the impact of the new tech-infused environment on students. It's too early to determine and assess the results, but this robust approach to implementing technology to serve students shows what can happen when ed tech and Title I staff work together.

At the helm of this effort is Joseph Morton, Alabama's superintendent of education. With the flush of new Title I funding arriving via the stimulus package, Morton has pulled together the department's top-ranking officials over finance (for grants), curriculum and instruction, federal programs, special education, and educational technology. Together, they have begun to plan for using the ARRA money effectively and getting it to school districts as quickly as possible. They share any information they receive from professional associations such as SETDA, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the US Department of Education.

Demonstrating his brand of leadership, Morton has invited all district superintendents in the state to a meeting. Morton has asked that each superintendent bring a team that mirrors his own team at the state DoE.

At the meeting, Morton will have the members of his team discuss what effect the stimulus money is going to have on each of their programs. Of particular note will be the message brought by Melinda Maddox, Alabama's director of technology initiatives. She is encouraging any district looking to use stimulus money to purchase technology-- no matter what part of the dollars it receives (Title I, Title II-D, IDEA)-- to take into consideration professional development, tech support, and bandwidth requirements.

Maddox says, "My message will be clear: Make sure your ed tech director is at the table."

Technology directors, CIOs, tech-savvy teachers: Call, text, or e-mail your new best friend-- the person responsible for Title I in your school or district. Without your help, the nightmare that I heard so much about in my visit to Washington may indeed come true. To borrow from Dylan, if everyone's having the same dream, I want it to be mine.

Geoff Fletcher is editorial director of T.H.E. Journal.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2009 issue of THE Journal.

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