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1,200 Educators Sign Letters Lobbying Congress to Protect Ed Funding

San Antonio

ISTE ADVOCACY KIOSK.JPGAdvocating for maximum federal funding of ed-tech programs is front-and-center at ISTE 2017, with a kiosk that greets thousands of conference visitors on their way into the Expo Hall.

As of mid-way through the show, more than 1,200 educators stopped by to send nearly 4,000 letters to their members of Congress from the exhibit, according to Ally Bernstein, a legislative counsel for ISTE from the Bernstein Strategy Group.

The letters—to their two senators and representative for each educator—are part of the organization's push to garner support for increasing federal funding to the maximum $1.6 billion authorized for the Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants, under Title IV Part A of the Every Student Succeeds Act or ESSA. These grants are designated for students to have a well-rounded education, for their health and safety, and effective use of technology in schools.

A copy of the letter can be viewed here, after filling out a form. When they send their letter, every educator is entered into a raffle to win an Alexa. "But we have found that many more people are interested in their civic duty to tell Congress about the importance of ed-tech funding," said Bernstein in an email.

For 2017-18, Congress appropriated only 25 percent of the $1.6 billion authorized—or $400 million—and President Trump's proposed budget for 2018-19 recommends no funding for the block grant.

This year's block grant funding will be released July 1. The money is to be allocated to states via a formula based on Title I, which provides financial assistance to districts with high percentages of children from low-income families. The states, in turn, will distribute those funds to the local education agencies.

Distribution of the Title IV, Part A block grant funding to states is governed by a tiered formula, so that schools or districts that receive more than $30,000 must conduct a needs assessment, then use 20 percent for safe and healthy school activities, 20 percent for well-rounded education programs, and the remaining 60 percent as they see fit for any of the three priorities, including technology. Spending on devices, equipment, software, and digital content would be capped at 15 percent.

Schools or districts that receive less than $30,000 must spend money in at least one of the three designated categories. Again, spending on hardware, software, and content would be capped at 15 percent. No needs assessment is required for grants under $30,000.

The issue of appropriating more for Title IV, Part A is a high priority, Bernstein explained, because state education staff and school district leaders are concerned that they will not be able to make meaningful investments with reduced funding. "Over 60 organizations in D.C. are fighting very hard for this program to get adequate funding," Bernstein told an audience in a policy session at ISTE.

Also complicating matters is the fact that, in 2017, states can choose to run competitions to distribute the funding when it is released July 1. My colleague Alyson Klein explains this development, and what it means in more detail.

The ISTE advocacy letters also ask for the recently modernized E-rate program to be unchanged, and for "sensible" data privacy legislation.

Jon Bernstein, who provides legal counsel for ISTE, noted that Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai says the E-rate program is "worth fighting for," but he thinks the program could be more efficient. One way to make it more efficient is by turning it into a per-pupil block grant, in Pai's view. Bernstein argued that this would adversely affect schools in rural areas or states.

In general, ISTE is concerned about federal funding cutbacks across the board.

"I consider education to be the nation's first line of defense," said Craig Thibaudeau, ISTE's chief external relations officer, in introducing the federal policy session. "Only 2 percent of our $4 trillion budget is spent on education. We're in a position now where funding is less than it was 10 years ago—and it's dropping."

Image: Jon Bernstein, left, and Ally Bernstein, who are both legislative counsel for ISTE and who are NOT related to one another, stop to talk "ed-tech policy" in front of the advocacy kiosk at ISTE 2017.

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