Opinion: New Money for Ed Tech, but Same Potential Pitfalls

The American Rescue Plan presents schools with some high-stakes opportunities to make lasting changes.

A hand holding a lightbulb with a dollar sign on it out to a person working at a laptop.
Pixabay/MohamedHassan
About $130 billion allocated for K-12 education from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) will provide schools with much-needed funds to help them recover from pandemic-created losses. And it will also allow them to rebuild and rethink the educational technology programs they’ve leaned on so heavily this past year.

But given the magnitude of these one-time monies, the stakes are raised for schools to ensure the funds allocated to ed tech are well-spent and focused on sustainability.

Those who were working in district ed-tech departments 10 years ago will recall the federal Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) program that allocated $650 million in stimulus funds for schools’ ed-tech needs. In large urban districts, we got some decent money for a couple of years. And where I worked, we did our best to spend it well, primarily through teacher professional development and in giving funds to schools ready to build innovative tech programs.

But the money went away, and in my district, so did the initiatives it supported. The hard truth was that we hadn’t prepared for the EETT funding cliff, and we couldn’t make a good enough case for our lost money to be replaced in tight budget times.

Fortunately, we didn’t hire any additional staff with the EETT funds. We’d learned our lesson on that from previous grant-funded projects where we ended up scrambling for money to sustain staff once the grants ended and the work remained unfinished. But we were nonetheless shortsighted in other ways.

The EETT funding pales in comparison with the level of new stimulus funds coming to districts. But the challenges remain the same — how to leverage this big one-time money to build and then maintain strong ed-tech infrastructures and programs.

When the pandemic hit, schools moved heaven and earth to outfit students and teachers with the tools necessary for remote learning. Laptops, Wi-Fi hot spots and learning management systems all became hot commodities. So, too, did the training required to retool teachers for this new instructional model.

As schools reopen, these tools will still be needed since they’re now an integral part of most classrooms. Chromebooks, the most popular student laptop option, have a three-year lifespan. Though cheaper than fully functional laptops, keeping Chromebooks on a replacement cycle for every student will be an expensive undertaking.

There’s real money in ARP to help address the challenge of student connectivity. And E-rate, as well as support from states, will further help close this gap. But school districts will also need to continue their work at the local level to ensure their kids are able to get online, and that will have ongoing costs.

Many districts will also need to build virtual school programs to accommodate those families who, for a variety of reasons, will opt not to return their students to traditional schools.

And maintaining district technology infrastructures — including strong Wi-Fi access throughout schools to support the expansion of student wireless devices — will also be an ongoing necessity. As will maintaining the contracts for both administrative and instructional software applications schools have adopted, or will soon purchase with the aid of the new stimulus funds.

The incoming ARP funds for ed tech will provide schools with opportunities to advance their programs and address both new and old needs. But with this one-time money come pitfalls that schools will be wise to avoid:

  • There will be a desire to spend the ARP funds quickly so the new resources can be put to use as soon as possible. But it’s crucial that schools have thoughtful and thorough planning and selection processes — especially given the amount of money and the long-term consequences at stake.
  • Plan ahead for how ongoing costs will be absorbed once the ARP 2024 funding cliff is reached.
  • Be sure the planning process is inclusive and brings together representatives from technology, curriculum and instruction, and schools.
  • Think long and hard before using ARP funds to hire new staff for ed-tech initiatives (or for any ARP project, for that matter.) The money will go away all too soon, as will the people it funded.
After suffering through the trying past two years, ARP provides schools with welcome financial relief and some promising possibilities. Taking advantage of these funds to make lasting changes for how teachers teach and students learn is a generational opportunity. But this is only possible if school leaders plan well and are mindful to not repeat past mistakes.

Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a teacher, a librarian, and a district-level educational technology director. He currently writes and consults from Santa Fe, New Mexico.