Decisions made on Capitol Hill can seem far removed from school or district leaders' daily responsibilities. However, there are ways in which educators can advocate for their school- and district-level needs.
Two sessions during this year’s ISTE conference posed the question of how can school leaders maximize and utilize their federal funding to fulfill ed tech needs, which provided the following takeaways.
Create a master plan
Education technology specialist Rick Gaisford from the Utah State Board of Education said that before approaching policymakers and beginning advocacy work, it is critical for educators and leaders to build a framework or “master plan” on ed tech use in schools with key focus areas.
“It is important for lawmakers to see capacity before funding something,” Gaisford said in the session.
Ally Bernstein, ISTE’s legislative counsel, said that while Title II and IV funds are available for school districts, it is important for them to prioritize ed tech funding in their ESSA plans.
"These funds are competing with a lot of other pressing needs in the school,” she explained. If ed tech programs are an integral part of the plans, lawmakers know they are a priority that must be addressed.
While planning, Sitka School District Superintendent Mary Wagner said it is important to consult with stakeholders — parents and students — to meet their needs.
“Historically, school boards have determined the priorities, but we are looking more at shareholder input,” she explained. Wagner also pointed out that it is important to meet with communities that are underrepresented in the decision-making to make sure their needs are also met.
Get a seat at the table
In order to understand where the money is available and influence policymakers’ agendas, it is important to first get a seat at the table and take part in meaningful conversations.
“You have to be able to push into those conversations and help everyone understand that federal dollars can directly address your master plan and show where those items directly fit,” said Ryan Imbriale, executive director of innovative learning for Baltimore County Public Schools. While he noted that it’s not possible to immediately influence funding decisions, it is important to start by developing relationships that may lead to that end.
The best way to do that, according to Virginia Society for Technology in Education (VSTE) Executive Director Karen Richardson, is “by never saying no” to potential networking opportunities and facilitating conversations. It could be as simple as setting up a time for coffee and exchanging ideas that could lead to gaining a seat at the table that really matters.
Eventually, Imbriale said, “You get to become very good friends with the person who actually is in charge with distributing Title money.” At that point, he suggested paying close attention to the process and to any available funding.
At the end of the year specifically, districts can take advantage of leftover funds, which would be sent back to the government if unused. Imbriale said districts should keep a shortlist of plans that can be achieved quickly and efficiently with the additional funding.
Share stories centered on ed tech
Once you have built connections, be “proactive rather than reactive” in your advocacy. Janice Mak, a member of Arizona’s State Board of Education, said constantly seek impact, which could be as simple as writing letters about what is important to your school district or partnering with organizations that have a “powerful presence.”
“It could be as simple as emailing someone about what you’re working on,” Whiteboard Advisors’ Evo Popoff said.
Seek out opportunities to get involved in committees and then share stories centered on ed tech funding and programs. But also remember not to talk about ed tech in isolation, Ally Bernstein pointed out.
“Talk about how ed tech can help those other areas, such as implementing mental health services programs,” she said. Framing ed tech as a multifunctional tool to improve other programs is more likely to sway representatives on its efficacy.
In addition, be mindful to “cite the source of the funding,” New Jersey Department of Education Technology Specialist Sandy O’Neil suggested. “Specify that you use federal dollars for your impactful programs.”
The minute educators stop talking about the effectiveness of ESSA funds, the potentially hefty financial support will dry up, Bernstein said. “Those funds are there, and we need to talk about them in a way that shows how ed tech can support the remaining goals of ESSA.”