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Stimulus money will help schools' high need for high tech

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 5, 2009 - A president who is comfortable using his Blackberry and other high-tech toys for communicating with the public raised the hopes of K-12 educators by promising that on his watch, more money for technology would flow to school districts.

That hope was raised even higher after Barack Obama supported the inclusion of $1 billion for educational technology in a multibillion-dollar federal stimulus package for schools. But balking lawmakers succeeded in trimming the technology allocation by about two-thirds, with Missouri now getting about $13.7 million, including $4 million in regular technology funding and an extra $9.7 million from the stimulus package.

The much larger school population in Illinois is getting $36.6 million in technology funding, including $26.6 million in high-tech money from the educational stimulus program.

School officials in Missouri say that even the downsized program will allow more districts to add computers, SMART boards, digital cameras, and other high-tech gadgets to their classrooms.

The $9.7 million is part of the estimated $1.3 billion in school stimulus money flowing to Missouri, with more than half of it -- about $753 million -- reserved to shore up basic K-12 and higher education funding through the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2011.

The Festus School District in Jefferson County is among those seeing a glimmer of hope in the state's smaller pot of school technology money. The district has been mired in economic hard times for years due to repeated voter rejections of tax levies to build a new high school and a recession that has generated fewer tax money to fund technology and other programs.

Before the recession, Superintendent Randy Sheriff says, Festus was making headway in equipping each classroom with a SMART board. He says the district now hopes that the technology funds will help it buy more of these boards.

"That's one possibility, but we'll have to wait and see," says Sheriff, expressing the uncertainty among school districts across Missouri about how much of the technology funds they will get.

The uncertainty stems partly from the fact that half of the money will be distributed on the basis of competitive grants, says Claranne Vogel, supervisor in instructional technology for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Many districts are now scrambling to meet the March 31 deadline for submitting applications for a share of the competitive grant money.

In addition to using the funds to allow districts to buy hardware and software, the state requires that 25 percent of its dollars be spent on professional development, Vogel says.

"We want to show teachers how to use the technology to boost learning rather than seeing it as an expensive toy." She adds that acquainting students with ever-changing technology has become essential to get them ready to grab new jobs in industries looking for technologically savvy workers.

This fact has made professional development more essential than ever, Vogel says. "We have to keep training teachers and make them aware of teachable moments" through the use of new technology.

In addition, Vogel says, districts need more high-tech funds because of the cost associated with putting technology in classrooms. The ongoing expenses that the public doesn't necessarily think about, she says, include repairing hardware, maintaining networks, and upgrading software.

Missouri used to be a leader in using technology in its schools. The state's broad experiment with high-tech classrooms began in 1993 during the administration of Gov. Mel Carnahan. By 1996, the state was spending $50 million a year on technology grants, but the amount dropped sharply following the recession after the 9/11 terrorist attack.

The financial shortfall caused Missouri to drop from being a frontrunner to a score of C+ in school technology last year, according to Education Week.

While some school officials say Missouri needs a big pot of state funds dedicated to technology in schools, there is relief that the state is getting an extra $9.7 million in federal money for technology.

This money, says Vogel, "is going to be very helpful to districts. This should be a great opportunity to do things on their wish lists."

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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