Current Online

Missing the boat
Public TV loses out on $3 billion in new ed-tech funding

Commentary originally published in Current, Feb. 22, 1999
By John Lawson

John LawsonPublic television stations, which are eager to try their hands at digital media and equally ardent about developing community partnerships, are missing the boat on a fleet of federal grant programs that would help them do both.

Over the past six years, federal funding for educational technology, including digital networks and multimedia content, has expanded dramatically. Direct "ed-tech" grant programs at the Department of Education alone have grown from $23 million in fiscal year 1992 to $800 million in fiscal 1999. The new "e-rate" program, which covers up to 90 percent of the cost of telecommunications services for public and private schools and libraries, will ramp up to $2 billion in annual subsidies later this year. Millions more in ed-tech funding are included in other sections of the federal budget.

Yet public television stations have neither been given, nor even sought, an effective role in any of these programs. Indeed, an existing provision in the Higher Education Act, which was designed to fund PTV telecourse production, was dropped in the rewrite of that law last year because no one in public TV ever lobbied to fund it or keep it!

At the same time, rules for the e-rate--the biggest ed-tech program of all--have evolved, under pressure from phone companies, to practically exclude state public broadcasting networks and other noncommercial entities from receiving funds to provide telecom services.

Wait! Don't stop reading this article just because your station "doesn't do ITV." This is not your father's "educational television" that I'm talking about. Today, ITV means interactive TV, and a boatload of new money is available for it. Unfortunately, this is one boat public television stations have almost completely missed.

For stations that are actively committed to education, it may be time to step up to the opportunities presented by the new funding from Washington. For stations that have not paid much attention to classroom education for years, it may be worth taking a look at the changes that are occurring there. A new long-term funding source for station digital content may be at stake.

New partnerships, no public TV

To understand what stations are missing now, consider the ed-tech programs created since 1992 that are listed below. They all specify types of partners that are either required or encouraged for grant recipients. Public television--at one time the nation's primary educational technology infrastructure and multimedia curriculum developer--is not explicitly listed as a required or permitted partner in any of these programs. But stations may be eligible to be partners in consortia under certain general or "other" categories. Unfortunately, having no particular designation in statute or regulation subjects stations to the vagaries of state and local education politics. Stations are placed last in line when it comes to receiving grant money.

Learning Anytime Anywhere Partnerships (LAPP). Fiscal 1999 funding: $10 million. To demonstrate distance learning effectiveness, LAAP grants will be awarded to 15 partnerships, rising to 35 partnerships in three years. Partnerships must consist of two or more independent entities including: institutions of higher education, community organizations, businesses, other types of public or private organizations.

Partnerships between academia and industry are encouraged, as are partnerships involving school or university systems, and any other arrangement that can make possible new ways of addressing important needs, breaking down barriers, and ensuring access and quality.

Preparing Tomorrow's Teachers to Use Technology. Fiscal 1999 funding: $75 million. Grants will be awarded to institutions of higher education or consortia that partner with other agencies and organizations in implementing systemic improvement in teacher preparation programs. Partners could include: state education agencies (SEAs), institutions of higher education and their schools of education, professional associations, the private sector, local education agencies (LEAs).

Technology Innovation Challenge Grant Program. Fiscal 1999 funding: $115 million. Only consortia may receive grants under this program. A consortium must include at least one local educational agency (LEA) with a high percentage or number of children living below the poverty line. A consortium may also include: other LEAs, private schools , SEAs, institutions of higher education, businesses, academic content experts, software designers, museums, libraries, other appropriate entities.

Technology Literacy Challenge Fund. Fiscal 1999 funding: $425 million. The department makes grants to states; states make grants to school districts. A school district can apply as a member of a consortium, which may include: other school districts, institutions of higher education, businesses and industries, intermediate educational units, libraries, scientific and cultural institutions, other appropriate educational entities.

Title II Grants to Partnerships for Improving Teacher Preparation. Fiscal 1999 funding: $75 million. An eligible grant applicant is a partnership that includes, at a minimum: a public or private institution of higher education whose teacher education program is effective (as demonstrated by certain types of evidence stipulated in the statute); a school of arts and sciences; and a high-need LEA. Partnerships may also include: other higher education institutions (including community colleges), other school districts, governors, state boards of education, state educational agencies and agencies for higher education, nonprofit organizations, pre-school programs, teacher organizations, the business community.

Given public broadcasting's historic and continuing ties to education, the rules for these Title II programs should require public stations be part of any partnership that is eligible to receive funds. At a minimum, public television should be explicitly named in these programs as a suitable partner. But this has not happened. New networks are being built, and new relationships are being formed, that could begin to call into question the relevance of public television's education services.

ESEA: a chance to get back into the game

It's not too late to seek support from these grant programs, but the timing is ideal to focus on a major funding vehicle, now before Congress, that could benefit public stations much more directly. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is the basic law governing federal financial assistance for K-12 schools. In fact, it is "the mother of all education bills." Title I, which provides aid to schools with populations of disadvantaged students, is the best-known provision of this law. It also was the legislation that originally authorized many of the grant programs above, as well as older, more PTV-friendly programs--namely Ready to Learn Television, Mathline and Star Schools.

The ESEA, now funded at $14 billion a year, expires in 1999 and must be reauthorized in the current Congress (1999-2000). The reauthorization is expected to cover the period through 2004. Congress has already begun hearings on the bill, and technology is, again, certain to be near the top of the agenda.

The ESEA could very well become to fund digital educational content, including content delivered through digital TV. It may be possible to convince Congress to authorize a grant program that would fund public TV's digital production for education, or at least make public TV a "most favored nation" for such a grant program as part of a consortium with education institutions. Call it a "Digital Curriculum Fund." Stations' conversion to DTV provides a powerful new argument for an increased role, but the content would be created for delivery over many different systems. This program, if approved by Congress, could evolve into an important new, long-term funding source for public TV.

To pursue these funds, like-minded stations could create a "Digital Education Consortium." This would not be another permanent PTV organization, but could be associated with, and work through, one of the existing national organizations. The consortium would come together to develop a legislative proposal and advocate it before Congress and the Administration. The consortium may propose to administer any grant program created, although stations may find virtue in having the Department of Education play that role. The key is to draw the eligibility requirements so that grants, even if competitive, can only go to entities defined by the consortium.

Funding for digital curriculum content makes sense for several reasons. Many of the ed-tech dollars to date have gone to equipment and connectivity. There is a growing recognition that teacher training in the use of technology and new, world-class multimedia curriculum materials are now needed to complete the integration of technology for teaching and learning. Congress responded to the teacher-training gap by funding the two new teacher training programs discussed above.

But digital curriculum is a still a big hole that someone needs to fill, and public TV can make a strong argument that it is that "someone." The imminent transition to DTV, with the powerful over-the-air data distribution bandwidth it will give stations, is another argument for an enhanced role for stations in ed-tech.

They did it--so can others

One reason for optimism that Congress would be receptive to a public TV argument for a greater role in the ESEA is the success PBS and WETA have had with their ed-tech agendas.

Our firm began representing PBS the last time the ESEA was reauthorized in 1994. Then, PBS convinced Congress that public television was in a unique position to improve teacher training, which led to the inclusion of the "Telecommunications Demonstration Project for Mathematics," also known as PBS Mathline. Congress has funded the program for five years, increasing it last year from $2 million to $5 million.

The Ready to Learn Television Program, which began life as a set-aside in the CPB appropriation, also was statutorily authorized in the ESEA in 1994. Last year, after CPB and the Department of Education passed operational control of the program to PBS, PBS asked Congress to increase RTL funding from $7 million to $11 million. Congress agreed to this 57 percent increase.

WETA, another longtime client of our company, developed a project called Readline to disseminate practical research about effective strategies for teaching young children to read. Congress was persuaded to include Readline in the reauthorization of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and has appropriated $1.5 million for each of the past two years for the program. A similar provision was included for WETA in last year's Reading Excellence Act (REA).

Mathline, Ready to Learn, and Readline are three relatively small programs that, nevertheless, indicate the willingness of Congress to accept a greater role for public television in federal education policy. But nothing more will happen if public TV doesn't ask for it. Now is the time for the broader station community to step forward with a creative proposal to leverage its unique assets to improve education in the Digital Age.

A station-based initiative for digital curricula would complement PBS's on-going advocacy for teacher training and Ready to Learn, as well as APTS' and the industry's overall advocacy for DTV funds. The stations' powerful new data distribution capabilities through DTV, their long-term relationships with local schools, and their talent for creating effective multimedia projects all should put PTV in a strong position for a new role in education-and greater long-term funding.

The ESEA, a giant steamship of federal funding, presents an opportunity that PTV may not have again until 2005. The Secretary of Education plans to present the Administration's proposals to Congress by March 15-20 [1999], and Congress, reportedly, is already drafting a bill. So, if PTV is to influence this legislation, it must act now. The ESEA is one boat that stations cannot afford to miss again.

Current's home page
Later story: Lawson, who later became APTS president, sees potential aid in additional corners of the federal budget.

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