$1.1 Billion Federal Block Grant Makes Ed-Tech Training Higher Priority Than Software, Devices

Associate Editor

A nearly three-fold increase in appropriations for the Title IV-A block grant in the new federal budget means that many districts across the country can dedicate more funds to helping teachers learn how to use technology for instruction.

That emphasis will outpace the proportion of those federal funds that districts can spend on devices or software, which is capped at 15 percent of a part of the block grant, said Richard Culatta, the CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, or ISTE.

Title IV-A, dubbed the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Block Grant, is not meant to be “tech only” funding at all. In fact, it has been set up so that districts can use it for a variety of purposes. States receive the funding and then distribute it to districts. The formula covers three priority areas:

  • Providing a well-rounded education for students, which would cover expenditures for college and career counseling, STEM and music and arts, civics, computer science, and International Baccalaureate or Advanced Placement;
  • Supporting safe and healthy students, by providing funds for drug and violence prevention, comprehensive mental health services in schools, training on trauma-informed practices, and health and physical education; and,
  • Supporting the effective use of technology with professional development, blended and personalized learning, and devices.

Established under the Every Student Succeeds Act, Title IV-A originally was intended to be funded at $1.65 billion, but only $400 million was appropriated in fiscal 2017. This year’s appropriation brings it much closer to the original level.

Schools or districts that receive more than $30,000 from the block grant must do a needs assessment and spend 20 percent in the “well-rounded education” area and 20 percent in the “safe schools” category. The rest of the allocation—60 percent—may be spent on all three priorities, including technology, with a cap of 15 percent on devices, equipment, software, and digital content.

Smaller districts that receive less than $30,000 will have more discretion about how funds are spent.

Culatta said his organization does not see the technology bucket as competing for funds from the other areas.

“I actually think they go hand in hand,” he said. Part of addressing school safety can be using building-monitoring programs for security, but another part is “looking at how we are engaging, and connecting with students, and looking at their learning experience,” he said.

The technology used for this kind of analysis can flag changes in students’ behavior—such as an overall drop in grades and increased absences—to provide an early warning that a student is struggling or having mental or physical health issues. Technology can also be a means to connect children with others who can help, whether that’s teachers, counselors, or other students.

“And, as you improve instruction, and engagement with students, we also see it as improving school climate … which is critical,” he said. “Those two are linked: if you want to have a safe school, and a school with high-quality learning, there are connections. The two go hand in hand,” he said.

Culatta said more than 30 members of ISTE flew to Washington last week to advocate for Title IV-A funding with their elected officials. That level of support did not surprise Culatta. “I’ve continually heard from districts that there is a need for teachers to be able to prepare to use technology effectively,” he said.

The Title IV-A Coalition, a group of 60 organizations that advocated for more funds to address these needs, has been working for an increase in funds appropriated, too, he said. The coalition released a statement after the bill’s passage that said, “This level of funding will allow school districts to have true flexibility in determining how to meaningfully invest in and support programs that support safe and healthy students, a well-rounded academic curriculum, and an effective educational technology program.”

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