Position Your School District for Federal Technology Funds

Local school districts are sitting on a pot of gold for educational technology projects, thanks to the Clinton administration's Technology Literacy Challenge, a five-year, $2 billion program to give students equal access to high-tech learning tools. Although it's not a get-rich-quick scheme, there is a hitch: Districts will have to compete for the funds by making the best cases for their technology programs.

How can districts improve their odds? According to funding experts, the winners will be those districts that can prove to state program managers that technology is embedded in their long-term educational plans. "Every state's process for distributing grants is slightly different," said Linda Roberts, director of the U.S. Education Department's Office of Educational Technology. "In general, I would say it is really important to be very clear about educational objectives and how those can be helped by technology."

The two-part program, composed of the Technology Literacy Challenge Fund (TLCF) and the Technology Innovation Challenge Grant, is being run by Education, which already has given $200 million in TLCF funding to the states. The states, in turn, are administering the competition among their school districts.

Administration's Goal

Education hopes to increase the TLCF pot to $425 million in fiscal 1998, a goal it says depends on meeting the Clinton administration's four goals for the program. Those include having more teachers trained to use computers and the Internet; providing up-to-date equipment in all classrooms; establishing universal classroom connections to the Internet; and maintaining the use of computers as "an integral part of every school curriculum."

To increase the odds of tapping the fund, local districts should prepare thoughtful vision statements that demonstrate that technology has been spelled out during the building and planning of educational infrastructures, according to state TLCF program officials. "Applications must show how districts will use money to support technology in previously planned implementations," said Rich Gross, director of the Iowa Office of Technology. Gross will play a large role in deciding where to put his state's $1.5 million in TLCF funding, which will be split into awards of $50,000 each.

Local districts are being allowed plenty of technical discretion as long as their solutions are consistent with their long-range plans. "The districts can propose almost anything they want to implement in terms of technology in their long-range plans," said Marilyn Hunter, acting director of the Michigan Department of Education's Office of Grants and Technology. "We haven't limited what they can apply for. What they must do, however, is propose the funding's connectedness to strategic long-range planning."

Hunter suggested that local school districts demonstrate "how the proposed project will impact student learning" or describe "how parents and public libraries have been involved in developing long-range technology planning." Michigan will parcel out $8.2 million in grant money from the fund, much of which will go toward hardware, teacher training and professional development in technical areas, she said.

Proposals that seek connections to state educational networks or demonstrate cooperation between state and local governments could also win high marks, program officials said. In Oklahoma, for example, administrators expect to fund connections to OneNet, a regional network operated by five Oklahoma telecommunications companies that links together the state's universities. "A lot of our funds will be used by the districts to connect to OneNet or to expand those connections," said Phillip Applegate, Oklahoma's director of instructional technology and telecommunications.

Enhanced Networks

Applegate predicts school districts that are more technically advanced probably will propose enhancing network connections, while those that lag behind will be more interested in basic hardware and software. Even so, the fund is specifically geared toward districts that could be classified as technology "have-nots." According to documentation on the program, "a central purpose of the TLCF is to take into account the needs of those districts serving many poor children and having the greatest need for educational technology." Such districts should be prepared to quantify the number of Internet connections in the classroom and "the extent of the unmet need," according to the TLCF guidance.

But although funding to disadvantaged areas is a major TLCF tenet, states can meet the criteria in ways that benefit the entire the entire school system. "States have been pretty creative in thinking about how to allocate this money," said Education's Roberts. "Some states set aside a specific portion for the most needy districts, while other states have thought more about ways to build on the knowledge and experience in more innovative districts to work with less advantaged areas."

In Iowa, for example, program officials will consider the needs of individual schools rather than entire districts. "While the district as a whole might not fall under the poverty level, one building might," said Dennis McElroy, technology consultant for the Iowa Department of Education. The entire district would thus be eligible for additional consideration.

Oklahoma's Applegate said about 40 percent of his state's funding will be distributed based on financial need, while the remaining 60 percent will be based on "the quality of the applications." In general, applications should demonstrate cohesion among school districts. "There needs to be a district-wide technology plan that ensures that the technology" is well-incorporated, he said.

While most educational technology funding will be funneled through the TLCF, the Clinton administration has included $75 million in its fiscal 1998 budget for the Technology Innovation Challenge Grant program, which offers five-year grants to public/private consortia working on advanced educational technology applications. While 21 grants already have been awarded, 20 more projects are yet to be funded.

"These are cutting-edge applications from school districts and consortia that often benefit from the experience of universities," added Roberts, who described as "cutting-edge" not only the technology included but the educational methods as well. For instance, the San Diego Unified School District won a grant for "The Triton Project," an educational program that "blends a unique ocean-theme curriculum" with technology. And in Waukegan, Ill., School District 60 was awarded almost $3.4 million for a telecommunications-based program that will instruct students on data compilation and multimedia.

More than 500 applications have been received so far, Roberts said. "It is very competitive."

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