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Reflections on the Rise and Possible Fall of the Federal Community Technology Centers Program

The Digital Beat

July 26, 2001

Reflections on the Rise and Possible Fall
of the Federal Community Technology Centers Program


The future of the federal program that provides resources for community technology centers (CTCs) remains in doubt as two major education bills move through the final phases of the congressional approval process. This is not the first time that the U.S. Department of Education (ED) Community Technology Centers program has been on the brink of extinction and risen like the mythic Phoenix from the ashes. While serving as a senior policy advisor at the Department of Education's Office of Vocational and Adult Education from 1998 until early 2001, I was involved in all phases of the program's development -- from its initial rocky journey through the budget cycle to its subsequent creation and expansion. Now, from the outside as a senior policy associate at the Benton Foundation, I am witnessing the possible dismantling of the program.

From Idea to Funded Program

In January 1998, I boarded a plane for Berkeley, California, and the nation's first Information Technology Workforce Convocation. Hard as it is to believe now -- with the popping of the dot-com bubble, the crash of technology stocks and concomitant company layoffs -- the big news then was the IT worker shortage.

The media frenzy had started the year before, in 1997. The Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) grabbed headlines with facts and figures on the growing IT worker shortage and how the technology-driven "New Economy" bullet train could possibly be derailed because of it. This got the attention of then-President Bill Clinton. His team at the National Economic Council directed that a federal interagency task force work with the IT industry to investigate and propose solutions to the problem. Representing the Department of Education, I joined a steering committee led by the U.S. Department of Commerce's Office of Technology Policy. We worked closely with ITAA to set up research groups and plan a conference on the IT workforce.

As I flew west from D.C. to attend the meeting, I reflected on President's Clinton's fiscal 1999 proposed budget, which had just been released. I was curious about a request of $10 million for a "community technology centers program." A conference breakout session on the National Science Foundation-funded Community Technology Centers Network (CTCNet) further piqued my interest in the topic. The conference pitch was that CTCs were a way to get under-represented groups prepared for the IT workforce. Flying back to Washington I thought that, with my office's portfolio of workforce development and adult education programs, it would be the perfect place for the program to be housed.

Since 1993, members of the Clinton administration and National Information Infrastructure Advisory Council had actively discussed ways to bridge what later became called the "digital divide." Several federal initiatives followed. While much of the initial federal policy focus centered on schools (with the multi-year $2 billion Technology Literacy Challenge Fund as the centerpiece), senior policymakers were also actively considered ways to bring digital opportunity directly to other community entities. There were ready models worth considering. For example, the Kick Start report had pointed to the pioneering work of people like Toni Stone and the Playing to Win CTC in Harlem and other compelling CTC demonstration projects funded by the Department of Commerce.

Although the $10 million was a surprise to many of us at the Department -- because the CTC request had not been part of the Department's own budget request -- others had been waiting for an opportune moment to suggest that it be added. With the strong urging of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) and her fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Clinton administration decided to request the $10 million to support community technology center development.

In part because of the strong leadership and advocacy of Linda Roberts, then head of the Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology, the decision was made that the money would be requested for the Department. Roberts argued that ED and her office had the broad legislative authority in Title III (which covers technology programs) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to do such national leadership activities. She also stressed that there was great demand in the field for such activities. She started conversations with my boss, Assistant Secretary Patricia McNeil, about our office managing the program.

That was, of course, if the program ever got funded. The winter turned to spring and spring to summer, and the congressional appropriations process continued as it does every year. To prepare for appropriation hearings, I drafted a one-page description of how we would run the CTC program in case any members of Congress asked. To my knowledge, none did. Community technology was not a priority. Subsequently, neither the House nor Senate appropriations bills included funding for the program -- normally a good sign that a program is not going to be funded.

However, as the end game neared for approving appropriations, a colleague at the White House told me that they would be pushing for funding. I had a hard time believing that a little $10 million program would garner such attention. In the grand scheme of the federal budget, $10 million is like the leftover change in "spare a penny, need a penny" cups at convenience stores. But when the budget was finally approved, the money was actually there! I started hearing from friends in the field that everyone was excited about what a difference these resources would make. Moreover, we were told a few months later that the president was going to be asking for a much larger amount in his fiscal 2000 budget for the CTC program -- $65 million. This program was clearly going to get greater visibility.

The CTC Program and Digital Opportunity Initiatives are Launched

We launched the CTC program at the Department of Education with a request for proposals to create new CTCs, as well as to expand existing ones (in the form of new programs, capacity building or additional satellite centers). For the fiscal 1999 competition our small team was swamped with 750 applications. As Linda Roberts had predicted, there was clearly a pent-up demand in the field to conduct such activities. In September 1999, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Vocational and Adult Education awarded 40 three-year grants, funding the creation of more than 100 new community technology centers.

President's Clinton request of $65 million for the CTC program got a chilly reception in Congress, however. As had been the case for fiscal 1999, neither the House nor Senate appropriations bills included CTC funding in their budgets. It looked like the death of the fledgling program. However, two new reports -- the Benton Foundation study, Losing Ground Bit by Bit: Low Income Communities in the Digital Age, and the Department of Commerce's Falling Through the Net study -- were calling attention to the need to bridge what was coming to be known as the digital divide. The issue was finally on the radar screen of national policymakers. When the smoke cleared after the final budget battle, Congress provided $32.5 million for the CTC program -- half the president's request -- but one of the largest increases in percentage terms of any ED programs. With this funding we eventually awarded 93 grants proposing to create 288 new CTCs and expand an additional 166 existing centers.

Meanwhile, we heard that bigger initiatives were brewing. President Clinton wanted to unveil a comprehensive proposal to help bridge the digital divide and create new technology opportunities for all Americans. Believing that access to computers and the Internet and the ability to use technology effectively were becoming increasingly important for full participation in America's social, economic and political life, he announced a series of related proposals as part of his fiscal 2001 budget.

Among them were $2 billion in tax incentives over 10 years to encourage private sector donation of computers, sponsorship of community technology centers and technology training for workers; $50 million for a public/private partnership to expand home access to computers and the Internet for low-income families; $45 million to promote innovative applications of information and communications technology for underserved communities; $25 million to accelerate private sector deployment of broadband networks in underserved urban and rural communities; and $100 million to create 1,000 community technology centers in low-income urban and rural neighborhoods.

To support this effort, I drafted a request for proposals for the creation of an "America Connects Consortium." The goal was to create an entity that could provide technical assistance and other services to community technology centers and to those seeking to build them. The consortium would be funded at $2 million. In fall 2000, the Department of Education announced that the America Connects Consortium would be developed by a coalition of organizations, including CompuMentor, Alliance for Technology Access, Education Development Center, CTCNet, Information Technology Association of America, ICF Kaiser, Alliance for Nonprofit Management and the National Alliance of Business.

America Connects is well into its first year of operation and already making a difference. ACC services consist of information and referral, training, research and development, resource development, and public information, including:

A comprehensive web site with pointers to the kinds of information and tools CTCs need to create and improve their programs.

Nine online panel discussions, focusing on topics that range from arts and media, to working with people with disabilities.

In-person training workshops, on topics such as workforce development, evaluation, and fundraising.

A field research and development program that will include awards to CTCs that want to investigate important issues or document their work.

Thirty regional meetings throughout the country, for information sharing and relationship building.

Public information, and outreach to potential supporters, so that ACC can enhance the public's understanding of what CTCs do, and bring new resources into community technology.

The New Bush Administration and Calls for Consolidation

With this digital opportunity momentum underway in 2000 and expected to continue under a Gore administration in 2001, many questioned what the election of George W. Bush would mean for these new federal investments.

While proposing to increase federal funding for education in general, President Bush's campaign proposals had described the federal educational technology program as "balkanized, inflexible and administratively burdensome." Soon after entering office, the Bush administration suggested in their domestic policy document, No Child Left Behind, that the way to fix the problem was by "streamlining duplicative technology programs into a performance-based technology grant program that sends more money to schools."

Among the programs proposed for consolidation into a state block grant was the CTC program, along with other ESEA Title III programs. To the Bush administration's credit, they did include a footnote in No Child Left Behind indicating their desire to continue support for CTC development: "Matching federal grants will be provided through the Community Development Block Grant Program administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development {HUD} in order to establish Community Technology Centers in high poverty areas." Consistent with his proposal, President Bush's fiscal 2002 budget did not include a request for the CTC program in the Department of Education budget. Instead, the budget called for the creation of a new $80 million CTC program at HUD to complement their existing Neighborhood Networks program.

Meanwhile, work continued on ESEA reauthorization -- one of President Bush's top domestic priorities. The House introduced and passed a bill in keeping with the spirit of No Child Left Behind. The Senate took quite a different approach.

After wading through over 100 amendments, the Senate in mid-June approved a bill overhauling ESEA and the federal role in schools. One key difference between the House and Senate legislation is it that during the weeks of floor debate, the Senate added many programs, from new initiatives to existing ones that had been consolidated or removed in the original Senate bill. The Senate bill has about twice as many discrete education programs (89 programs) as the House version (47 programs). One program added by the Senate bill was the Department of Education's CTC program. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) offered the amendment, which was approved by a narrowest of margins -- 51 to 49 votes.

Reflecting the opinion of Senate members that new accountability measures called for additional resources, the Senate also added more money, with authorization levels significantly higher than the House bill. The House bill would authorize $22.9 billion and the Senate bill $31.7 billion. Current appropriations for ESEA programs are at $18.4 billion.

Senators will next work out their differences with their House counterparts in a joint gathering known as a conference committee. On July 5, President Bush urged Congress "to come back to work hard to reconciling differences that may exist between the House and the Senate bill, and to get a bill to my desk quickly." If both houses of Congress approve a compromise bill, it could be in President Bush's hands for signature by August. With some big differences to be reconciled, early fall is much more likely.

End Game: Will the Senate Strike Back?

Because the Bush administration has demonstrated a preference for consolidating existing programs into block grants that go directly to the states -- not just in ESEA, but in other federal programs -- many experts believe that the survival of many discrete education programs hinges on the power of the U.S. Senate to push back. The existence of a Senate countervailing force, of course, is because of the recent mid-term reorganization that brought Democrats back to power in the Senate. And, as demonstrated by ESEA reauthorization, Democrats in the Senate are more prone to believe that greater federal leadership and resources are needed.

However, the reality related to ESEA reauthorization remains: Democrats control the Senate by a one-vote margin and face a Republican House and a Republican President with a veto pen. From all indications, President Bush seems to be pleased that both ESEA bills include core provisions important to him and appears willing to compromise on some categorical programs being added back into the legislation. Whether there is showdown at the conference committee corral remains to be seen.

In this current climate, many may ask: "Why worry about the CTC program when the Bush administration has proposed funding at HUD?" I have heard politicos say that they thought that the Bush administration was simply proposing to "move" the ED CTC program to HUD. The real effect would be killing one program and starting another one from scratch.

The Department of Education CTC projects are funded for three years. Many of them would have funding cut just as they were getting started. The America Connects Consortium would be killed too, just as it was getting off the ground. In an era in which high-poverty schools will be held increasingly accountable, gone would be the advantage of building CTCs through a federal department with education as its mission -- with ties to schools, higher education, family literacy programs and the workforce development system. Most detrimental would be the loss in the digital opportunity arena of what President Bush's father called the "Big Mo" -- momentum. If it weren't for an amendment to an amendment, the CTC program would now be on life-support.

Related Web Sites

U.S. Department of Education CTC Program

America Connects Consortium

Amendment SA 379 to Amendment SA 358
(to provide for the establishment of community technology centers)

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Last updated: 25 July 2001 awc