Since the Enhancing Education Through Technology grants were defunded five years ago, education technology advocates have been pushing for renewed federal support. But until now, they have had little hope that Congress would act in a highly polarized political climate.
That's why the inclusion of student support and academic enrichment grants in the Every Student Succeeds Act caught many policy watchers off guard. The U.S. House of Representatives already passed the act, which reauthorizes and revises the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and the Senate is expected to pass it on Tuesday, Dec. 8. The White House administration has said that President Barack Obama plans to sign the bill before the end of December.
And this bill wouldn't have made it this far without cross-party collaboration from two duos: Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT). By working across the aisle, they were able to agree on what provisions were most important and make room for education technology support.
The act would authorize these grants so that local education agencies and consortiums of agencies could build up their capacity to help students and teachers make the most of the technology opportunities they have. Here are six different ways these education agencies could use the grants:
Provide professional learning tools for educators Build up technology capacity and infrastructure Develop strategies to offer classes through technology Start blended learning projects Provide educators with professional development on how to use technology Increase access to high-quality digital learning experiences in rural areas But this act does not appropriate any money for these grants; it just authorizes them. So Congress must still come up with the funds.
"Given the bipartisan support we have, we're more optimistic than we have been in years," said Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking.
Along with the grants, the bill authorizes a national digital learning resources study, which Sen. Angus S. King Jr. (I-Maine) worked to include in the final language. This data will provide a clearer picture of a problem dubbed "the homework gap," which refers to the difference between the Internet and digital resource access students have at school compared to what they have at home.
The director of the Institute of Education Sciences would be required to publish a study within 18 months that assesses three key factors:
Student digital learning habits outside of school Barriers students face when they try to access digital learning resources away from school Challenges students face when they don't have Internet access at home
While these two provisions will help education technology efforts, education advocates were disappointed that a national commission on the privacy of student data did not make it into the final bill. The commission would have made recommendations to Congress and created new legislation.
"We agree that we need to improve the legal structure," Krueger said, "but before Congress takes action and does harm, we would like to create some consensus recommendations and thought that the commission was a way to do that."
Overall, this bill gives states and districts more flexibility in how they use federal funds and what they prioritize. And they will be watching closely to see what kinds of regulations the U.S. Department of Education comes up with to carry out the law's provisions.
Because it does provide more flexibility, states and districts will figure out which of the possible education priorities they want to focus on that are included in the bill. For example, the technology grant authorization is part of a larger block of grant funding priorities that local leaders can choose from. And that means it's up to local decision-makers to decide whether technology will be their priority.
"We hope that technology will be a priority," said Krueger, "but it's going to require really strong leaders in states and particularly in local education agencies to make the right investment to really create digital learning."