The American School Directory (ASD) is under fire. The internet-based marketing operation sells magazine subscriptions on some 106,000 home pages bearing the names of every private and public school in the United States—including yours. Now, the Connecticut attorney general’s office is looking into allegations of misrepresentation and unfair practices aimed at ASD by educators across the country. And Apple Computer Inc., a major ASD sponsor, has dropped its support of the internet project.

In spite of the controversy, ASD and its parent corporation, Computers for Education Inc., a subscription marketing firm in Murfreesboro, Tenn., have refused to close web pages that have been posted on the internet without the knowledge or authorization of most schools.

Computers for Education is a 12-year-old direct marketing company that reportedly returns a portion of its magazine-subscription proceeds to schools for technology purchases. At ASD web sites, which the company acknowledges are made to resemble a school’s own, visitors are hit with the company’s sales pitch for magazine purchases.

ASD, according to its web site, is supported by IBM, Vanderbilt University, the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), and the Greensboro, N.C., magazine marketer Innisbrook Wraps.

Under Investigation

ASD’s right to use publicly available information — such as a school’s name, address, enrollment figures, grade ranges, administrative personnel — is not disputed. But some educators — and Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal — are concerned about how the web sites appear to visitors. To the casual viewer, the sites look like official school web sites. But they are not. In most cases, schools did not design or endorse their ASD page. Furthermore, they have no ability to regulate what goes on sites bearing their names.

“It’s unconscionable to take public information and tag on a money-making venture,” said Randall Collins, superintendent of the Waterford (Conn.) public schools. “They’re making something off of this.”

ASD has made some attempts to accommodate schools that don’t want the company soliciting funds on their behalf. ASD says it will place a disclaimer banner or supply a hot link to a school’s official web site — but only if specifically asked to do so. And the features that create the look and feel of a school home page — such as an alumni directory, “creative corner” for art work, news and weather, and “Create-A-Note” — will remain.

“Obviously, it was designed to look like a school site,” acknowledged Tom Crook, CEO of Computers for Education. “It was built that way.”

Jon Carson, president of the Family Education Network, agreed that ASD seems to be capitalizing on schools. Carson’s web site also provides web pages to schools — the difference, Carson says, is based on a sense of mission and community partnership.

“There’s a business strategy there, not a mission,” said Carson, referring to ASD. “They want your school to sign up for their fund-raising program.”

It’s not a strategy likely to cull favor with schools, Carson says. “If your organization isn’t mission-driven, educators can sense it. It shows through in your decision-making.”

NASSP Continues Support

But not all educators take issue with ASD. NASSP, for example, continues to sponsor the directory project.

Superintendent Collins expressed surprise to learn that NASSP sponsored the site and has tried to call association officials to voice his concerns. “You think they’d be sensitive to the abuse of the internet, [the ASD] making money off high schools,” Collins said. “I don’t understand the persistence of NASSP. That’s their bread and butter, membership from high schools.”

Robert Mahaffey, NASSP’s director of communications, told eSchool News his association will stand by the ASD. “We think it is a good support service for schools,” said Mahaffey. “Our intent was to make home pages available to all schools. For us, it was an equity issue.”

At the urging of Collins and others, the Connecticut state attorney general’s office is conducting an investigation of the ASD. State Attorney General Blumenthal told eSchool News his office is looking into possible misrepresentation and unfair trade practices.

“In many instances, it may appear that the site is endorsed by a specific school if no disclaimer is properly displayed,” Blumenthal said. The attorney general’s office wants to ensure that visitors aren’t left with the impression that ASD sites are endorsed by individual schools.

Apple Computer Inc. originally signed on to draft a manual that would help schools set up their own home pages.

“Based on [educators’] concerns, Apple chose not to renew its one-year contract with ASD,” said John Santoro, manager of public relations for Apple’s education division.

Apple’s interest was in encouraging schools to build their own home pages and begin online projects. “What we saw developing made us choose not to continue our relationship,” Santoro said. “Based on customer feedback, we had to re-evaluate. We chose to step away and focus our energies elsewhere.”

At press time, IBM had not responded to questions about the status of its support for ASD.

“School Store” Dispute

ASD has disabled the fund-raising mechanism on each site, unless a school specifically has requested otherwise. Through the online sales of magazines, an online explanation states, “as much as 40% of every purchase” goes toward a designated school. Schools can receive their cut in the form of ASD “technology points” or as cash rebates. If a school opts for cash, it reportedly receives 50 cents on each dollar represented in “technology points.” If it opts to redeem the “technology points,” it may do so with only seven specific vendors, such as MicroWarehouse, a specialty catalog retailer.

NAIS Issues Warning

ASD’s operation seems to have touched the sorest spot with private schools, which keep tight controls on their publicity and fund-raising campaigns.

The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) warned its members about the ASD site in a recent newsletter. NAIS said it turned up inaccurate information ASD provided at a school site. The group said it believes most private schools have no idea they’re even listed.

According to ASD’s Crook, all school stores had been removed as of Dec. 9. But a spot check on the same day by Margaret Goldsborough, a spokeswoman for NAIS, found otherwise. She said: “We’re disappointed to see the school store buttons had not been removed.”

NAIS is conducting its own legal probe into the matter, she said: “We’ll continue our investigation; we’ll continue our battle.”

The school store buttons, because they are part of the generic school home page template, will not likely be removed. If you click on the school store button of a school that isn’t participating in the fund-raising activity, you’re brought to a page urging you to visit ASD’s Family Magazine Catalog, where “up to 40% of all new and renewal subscription dollars are given to [your school] . . . .” Two paragraphs later, there’s a note suggesting you visit another school, because the one you’ve chosen has not yet signed up to be a member.

NAIS is concerned about ASD because private schools raise an estimated $350 million in funds each year. Tuition and fees cover only about 80 percent of the cost of an independent school education, NAIS said. Consequently, private schools rely on gifts from alumni, parents, and friends to make up the remainder.

Casual visitors would have to explore features of several ASD school pages to realize that certain features — such as the “alumni directory” — are based on identical, generic templates.

So far, according to Crook, only about 500 schools have contacted ASD to have the disclaimer banner put on the sites bearing their schools’ names. Crook is adamant about not removing a school’s home page.

“That’s where I draw the line,” he told eSchool News. “I mean, is this an America’s school directory, or isn’t it?”

Superintendent Collins is dissatisfied with that response. “They must stop giving the impression through interactive features — not just the school store — that we’re in cahoots,” says Collins. “I don’t want to give the impression that we’re benefiting from or endorsing anything.”

ASD is reluctant to work with school leaders who call with concerns, according to the superintendent. Collins, who has contacted ASD a number of times, said the company wouldn’t tell him, for instance, how many technology points his school would need to make a purchase.

Collins also pointed out that, through the “Create-A-Note” function on ASD web sites, anyone can communicate with his students in a way that appears to be school-sanctioned.

The issue is especially sensitive because it involves the new frontier of online communications. Collins is concerned about answering to parents when he’s powerless to control what’s said or done on the ASD web site. “People actually think that I can change this,” he said.

So who is responsible? Not the company, according to its web site. In its disclaimer, ASD’s parent company asserts it is “under no obligation to monitor the information residing on or transmitted to this server, and assumes no responsibility for any harm or damages that may be incurred by its users as a result of their voluntary exposure to such information.”

There are other reasons schools don’t want their sites confused with ASD’s. Private schools that have invested time and effort in making distinct, sophisticated web sites will be hurt by the confusion, said Goldsborough.

Independent schools also want to retain their special access to donors. “This site is asking our alumni to sign up in the school store and [is] probably splattering their names all over the internet for other solicitations,” said Cathy Meany, technology director of the Shore County (Mass.) Day School. “It’s bad advertising for us.”

Crook emphasizes that the service isn’t just for schools. Using the search functions, for instance, any newcomer can find information about local schools merely by entering the zip code.

ASD’s chief executive said he has been caught off guard by the controversy. “We were blind to the fact that some schools had their own web sites and might object to what we were doing,” said Crook.

One solution some have suggested is to preserve ASD web sites for those schools that ask for them while creating a directory of information on all K-12 schools. Crook ruled that out. Given the way the ASD on-site data base is managed, he said, such a change would be impossible.

In addition to new subscription sales, ASD’s parent company recently announced an agreement to handle lucrative subscription renewals for more than 800 magazines.

Links:

The American School Directory
http://www.asd.com

Computers for Education Inc.
http://www.cfe.com

The National Association of Independent Schools
http://www.nais-schools.org

Connecticut Attorney General’s Office
http://www.cslnet.ctstateu.edu/attygenl/

Apple Computers Inc.
http://www.apple.com

National Association of Secondary School Principals
http://www.nassp.org/

Family Education Network
http://familyeducation.com/index.asp

IBM
http://www.ibm.com

Vanderbilt University
http://peabody.vanderbilt.edu/ltc/general/