Once-in-a-Lifetime Funding for K-12 Technology

In your career in K-12 education, you may never again encounter funding opportunities for technology such as those available in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), aka the Stimulus Act.

The $787 billion Stimulus Act includes $115 billion for education. As much as $80 billion of that money could pay for technology in K-12 schools. Scheduled for disbursement during this year and next, the ARRA K-12 technology money represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring your school’s or your school district’s technology up to date.

The funds fall into six categories comprising the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) Title I, Part A; ESEA Title I School Improvement Grants; Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT); Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Part B; Race to the Top and i3; and State Fiscal Stabilization Funds.

Before considering what kinds of technology ARRA technology money will buy, experts caution districts to be careful in how they decide to spend. Remember, they say, that ARRA funding will come to an end next year. So spending on salaries for technical faculty or staff probably won’t work — unless you have a way to support those salaries after the ARRA tap is turned off. Leasing technology with stimulus money may also be a mistake, since ARRA funding will run out before a lease runs out.

One more qualification: While some ARRA programs earmark funds for technology or for some other educational priority, many programs give state or local officials the discretion to decide what to do with the money. In most of those cases, technology is one of many choices that might be made.

That said, ARRA’s technology funds offer a wealth of opportunities.

ESEA Title I, Part A: $10 Billion
In general, ESEA’s Title I funds go to programs that help low-achieving, at risk students meet learning standards set for core subjects, says Elliott Levine, education strategist with HP Person Systems Group — Americas, a unit of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Hewlett Packard Co. Title I, Part A is for K-12 students.

ARRA is depositing $10 billion of new funding into this category.

“Title I, Part A leaves it up to the schools to decide what will provide the greatest assistance to their students: better curriculum, better texts, better resources or better delivery mechanisms, including technology,” Levine says. “Title I doesn’t specify technology, nor does it exclude technology.”

School Improvement Grants: $3 Billion
Another Title I program covers School Improvement Grants. ARRA is putting $3 billion into this category. The funds will be provided as grants to schools identified under the authority of No Child Left Behind as needing corrective actions or restructuring.

Once again, the grant applications might specify technology as a way to help a school improve its performance or restructure.

Enhancing Education Through Technology: $650 Million

Title II-D of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act creates a program called Enhancing Education through Technology (EETT). ARRA allocates $650 million to EETT. According to Levine, the states will distribute about half of the EETT money according to existing aid formulas. State grant programs will distribute the other half. “All of the money is intended specifically for technology,” says Levine. “The only caveat is that you must spend at least 25 percent on professional development — training teachers to teach with technology.”

Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation: $5 Billion
ARRA sets aside about $5 billion for the Secretary of Education to distribute to states with new ideas for new educational models. A program called Race to the Top (RttT) will distribute $4.3 billion of those funds, while another program, Investing In Innovation (i3) will distribute the remaining $650 million. Both of these programs are wide open to ideas that involve using technology to improve K-12 education.

“Both of these programs will distribute money that the Department hopes will be used to push the envelope,” Levine says. “What can we somehow do to really change the game? The grant process for both RttT and i3 will foster competition among the states. It is still early for this category, and the department has released few specifics.”

A little more is known about i3, continues Levine. The $650 million to be distributed under that heading will fund innovative public-private-partnerships (PPPs).

Many private businesses, both not-for-profit and for profit companies, are developing resources for education. For example, HP has made grants totaling more than $60 million to districts in recent years under a program called Innovations in Education.

The i3 category of ARRA aims to ferret out companies with innovative ideas and programs through the competitive grant process. To apply for i3 grants, states or consortia of school districts will find a private partner willing to match a percentage of the grant. For instance, an application requesting a $5 million grant would have to be accompanied by a commitment from a private partner to supply an additional 20 percent or 50 percent in funding (the final rules will set the percentage).

By encouraging these kinds of partnerships, competitive i3 grants will increase the available dollars and help to make sure that those dollars will chase ideas that will make education more effective for students.

State Fiscal Stabilization Funds: $48.6 Billion

“A huge chunk of the stimulus package falls into a category called State Fiscal Stabilization Funds (SFSF),” Levine says.

By and large, this money aims to replenish educational programs that states have cut due to the recession — or other economic pressures, for that matter. Levine says that about $40 billion will be distributed under the standard aid formula.

The other $8 billion will go specifically to school modernization ideas that improve academic instruction (as opposed to athletic facilities). Levine cautions that the use of modernization funds will require planning. “A number of educational experts recommend putting modernization funds toward professional development for teachers,” he says. “Training funds are often what gets cut, even though training probably gives the biggest bang for the buck.”

Teacher training that would qualify as instructional modernization could easily involve technology, notes Levine. For example, HP offers training in project-based teaching, a concept that integrates technology into basic curricula in various departments.

Today, computer teachers show students how to develop Excel formulas. In a modernized instructional program, however, a social studies teacher might work with classes to design formulas for Excel to evaluate immigration patterns at Ellis Island during the 20th century. “Project-based training would integrate technology learning into history, math, science, art and other traditional programs of study,” Levine says.

For Students With Disabilities: $11.3 Billion

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) illustrates another key point about ARRA funds: When they are gone, they are gone.

And these funds are, unfortunately, already gone. According to “Building Blocks: A Resource Guide for K-12 ARRA Education Funds,” a PDF issued by Taiwan-based ACER Inc., ARRA directed the states to award half of the money by the end of March 2009 and the other half by Oct. 1, 2009.

Districts following ARRA closely and submitting grant applications on time will receive funds from the states for special education programs and other services for students and preschool children with special needs as well as for families with infants needing early intervention. Part B of IDEA awarded $11.3 billion in grant money that the states are disbursing.

With the funds targeting students with disabilities, ages 3-21, the technology possibilities for IDEA funding include touch tablets, computers with special interfaces for students with severe disabilities and more. “The possibilities here are endless,” Levine says. “At HP, we were shocked — and pleased — when a school district sent us a video of an autistic student who learned to speak by interacting with one of our Touch Smart computers. That is an expensive piece of communications equipment that few schools can afford. The point is that these ARRA funds offer great opportunities for students with special needs.”

Frustrating Process
Despite the rosy ARRA scenarios, some district officials complain about the onerous regulations that come with ARRA money. Some have reportedly given up on ARRA.

“I would say that expectations are high,” says Fritz Edelstein, a principal with Public Private Action in Washington, D.C. “Some thought the funds — disbursed in a program designed to help turn the economy around — would come out faster than they have.

“In addition, Congress wants recipients to be accountable for the funds. To ensure accountability, there must be a rigorous process demonstrating that the money is spent for the intended purposes.”

Combine high expectations with rigorous requirements, and the result can be frustration.

Levine suggests thinking about it this way: Even if the funds take a while to arrive, and even if the accounting work is imposing, and even if there are a host of other problems that arise, ARRA funds still present, according to Levine, “A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fund educational improvements. You will never again in your educational career encounter an opportunity like this."