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16 Surprising Ways to Fund Technology

Even in a down economy, savvy educators can still find resources to fund their favorite programs or projects.

Feeling strapped for cash? Across the country, educators in nearly every school district are feeling the effects of the struggling economy. Spending is tightening in all areas, including technology. But that doesn't mean teachers and students have to go without the latest mobile labs or digital microscopes. By combining a little ingenuity with some legwork, you may be surprised at how successful your fundraising efforts can be. To help you get stated, consider these 16 tried-and-true tips:

No. 1 Ask for big gifts. "Asking an individual or individuals in your school (or school district) for a big gift' is the fastest and easiest way to raise serious money for technology," says Stan Levenson, public school fundraising consultant and author of Big Time Fundraising for Today's Schools (2007, Corwin Press). "Of course, this takes nurturing time and know-how, but once you learn how to do this, you'll even surprise yourself." Levenson suggests inviting potential donors to tour the school and meet with students, teachers, and administrators. Find more strategies.

No. 2 Call Uncle Sam. Enlisting his help may be easier than you think. Register online for hundreds of thousands of dollars in surplus federal computer equipment that the U.S. General Services Administration encourages agencies to transfer directly to schools. And remember that despite No Child Left Behind's lack of funding, the government is still large enough for the Office of Educational Technology to offer at least eight different grant programs. Apply for one!

No. 3 Capture their imagination. Pretend you had all the money in the world—then list who actually does: George Soros , Bill and Melinda Gates or Lowell and Michael Milken. Pitch them your creative ideas and they might just pay out. Collectively, they've donated billions to schools over the last decade.

No. 4 Study parent files. Get to know the moms and dads in your school personally. You may discover a parent who works for Microsoft and is eager to share a corporate discount. When Dr. Sheryl Abshire was a school principal, she carefully reviewed student files. "I looked for parent occupations—if they were self-employed, if they had a family business—and composed a list of resources I could tap," says Dr. Abshire, now chief technology officer for Calcasieu Parish Public Schools in Lake Charles, Louisiana. "It was highly successful."

No. 5 Articulate and Engage. Consider these steps as a one-two punch. You must first have leadership who can clearly articulate the need to invest in technology, then mobilizes the support of the community, explains Keith Krueger, CEO at Consortium for School Networking in Washington, DC., which surveyed districts with growing technology budgets. "Engaged communities, especially parents and business, were significant factors in determining if the local community supported or opposed new funding," says Krueger. Dr. Chip Kimball, superintendent of Lake Washington School District, Redmond, Wash., has secured millions of dollars in technology this way. "When parents and businesses come to the table, bringing with them cash, equipment, expertise, and contacts with others, we get to engage in meaningful work rather than fund-raise and hunt for donations," Dr. Kimball says.

No. 6 Allow students to use their own technology. Some families already own laptops, which children could easily use in the classroom—so get a count. Speak Up, the nation's largest annual K–12 survey, polled approximately 320,000 middle school and high school students on this topic in 2007.  Sixty-three percent stated they should be allowed to use their own computing device at school. Jim Hirsch, associate superintendent for academic and technology services at Plano Independent School District in Texas, proposed a similar idea. "As we standardize the smaller-size 'netbook' we'll support on our wireless networks, we plan to notify parents that if they purchase this device for their children, we'll provide access during school to our licensed resources and extend that software access to their homes," he says.

No. 7 Look for hidden funding sources. Be creative by looking for opportunities beyond traditional technology funding sources. For example, Marengo County Schools in Alabama used state "at-risk" funds to purchase STI Assessment, an online system their teachers use to create, administer, and track standards-aligned student progress. The funds are appropriated for development of programs to address the needs of at-risk students as defined by their state board of education. "Many times these funds remain untapped simply because people don't know who or where to ask," says Jana Hoggle, coordinator of federal programs and technology at Marengo.

No. 8 Talk to someone experienced. Tom Vander Ark doled out at least $3.5 billion as Bill Gates' right-hand foundation man. He has since formed Revolution Learning, an education investment firm that leverages new technology to improve education. He's got a novel suggestion: Have kids refurbish older technology themselves. Check out Vander Ark's new website.

No. 9 Negotiate. Ask for free servers or extra computers when you buy in bulk. "Many businesses are willing to provide significant value-added services," says Ed Zaiontz, executive director of information services at Round Rock Independent School District in Texas. When Zaiontz purchased 2,000 notebook computers for a technology refresh, his district received two servers at no cost—a $25,000 reduction in the overall price—and had 500 batteries placed in escrow to be ordered as needed. See how to add more value.

No. 10 Appeal! Have you been cut out of E-Rate by the Schools and Libraries Division? If it denies—then reapply! One E-Rate funding compliance services firm, Funds for Learning, has secured funding commitments in excess of $370 million. "Many E-Rate applicants may be unaware that they can appeal funding reductions or denials when there's additional information available that the SLD didn't have at the time they reviewed the request," says John Harrington, CEO of Funds for Learning. "As long as this additional information doesn't contradict the information that the SLD has on file, they'll take it into consideration during the appeal review." But if you're appeal is unsuccessful and you still feel you're in the right, then "appeal the decision to the Federal Communications Commission," says Harrington.

No. 11 Call it infrastructure. The new middle school being built downtown or the library renovation at the local high school are both opportunities to hook your students up with 21st-century technology. "Technology investments can be tied to building renovation, expansion, or facilities improvement, where funds come from different pots of money than general operation budgets," says Linda Roberts, who directed the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology from 1993 to 2001 and served as the Secretary of Education's Special Adviser on Technology. Technology funding "has to be built on a long-term strategy for teaching and learning," says Roberts. It's important to know what you want first, she advises.

No. 12 Seek matching grants. If your teachers have science classrooms supported by technology, they may be eligible for company grants. Last year, for example, Fourier Systems introduced  its Computing Science Exploration grant program, which donated classroom technology to the winning entrant. Fourier Systems matched the applicant's contribution up to $7,500. That's 15 Nova5000s worth of technology, for a total of 30 machines—enough to equip an entire science and math computing classroom or lab. Three runners-up also received a $500 voucher toward a selection of any Fourier probeware. Contact Fourier to find out if this grant program is being continued in 2009.

No. 13 Make insurance companies pay. If you are trying to set up a training program to help limit your exposure to lawsuits, but you need new technology to implement it, ask your insurance company to foot the bill. They just might pay it to cover themselves. "For required human resources training on topics such as blood-borne pathogens, sexual harassment, and safety regulations concerning food service workers and bus drivers—the insurance companies are sources of funding as they want to limit their liability," says Eliot Levinson, founder and CEO of Blegroup, a technology advisory firm in Washington, D.C., designed to improve K-12 instruction and management. "If you have not delivered training in those areas, then their liability is vastly increased in court cases." Likewise, if you have to train 3,000 teachers, you're not going to train them individually. Typically, you'll rely on CDs or Internet-based training programs.

No. 14 Implement results-based funding. Tie technology funding to student performance. If test scores rise in a group of students who use computers every day, use that as a reason to ask for more funding. David Neils, founder and director of the nonprofit Web-based International Telementor Program, which facilitates electronic mentoring relationships between professional adults and students, suggests that schools re-examine funding structures. Neils says that nationwide there's "rarely a benchmark that ties securing technology to the results of using that technology." Student work can be tied directly to the technology grant and mentored by a panel of professionals, both inside and outside the school. If established benchmarks are met, a good case can be made to continue funding.

No. 15 Take your campaign online. The school website is an often-overlooked place to ask family and friends to chip in to fund technology. Online rummage sales can show items for a long period of time and to a wider audience. Likewise, Google Adsense can bring in income, too. "We've moved far beyond the days of school websites being oddities or static repositories of hopelessly outdated information," says Mark Gura, educational consultant and former director of Instructional Technology for the NYC public school system. Next step: "Schools can find appropriate ways to include a degree of advertising. Maybe not on the landing page, but blogs and newsletters are likely spots." Click for more of Gura's ideas.

No. 16 Take advantage of teachers' awards. Many teacher award programs come with a stipend that can be spent on technology. The Wal-Mart Foundation, for example, recognizes hundreds of teachers annually with their Teacher-of-the-Year program, which awards $100 gift cards for classroom supplies along with a $1,000 school grant. The SMARTer Kids Foundation's Teaching Excellence Awards provides state and national teachers of the year with a complete technology package—valued at almost $16,000—which includes a whiteboard system, conferencing and classroom management software, a Senteo interactive response system, and a wireless slate.

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