Y2K legislation limits school liability: Disputing parties would have 90 days to settle grievances; schools cannot be sued for punitive damages

A bill aimed at preventing a flood of lawsuits stemming from year 2000 (Y2K) computer malfunctions was approved by Congress in July and awaited the president’s signature at press time. The bill, passed after both sides hammered out a compromise that would win White House support, also shields school districts and other government entities from punitive damages in the event of a Y2K-related suit.

The legislation seeks to limit lawsuits by giving disputing parties a 90-day cooling-off period to settle their grievances out of court. It also puts limits on class-action lawsuits, ensures that, in most cases, companies will be held responsible only for the damage they cause, and caps the amount that plaintiffs can collect in punitive damages from companies with fewer than 50 employees.

School districts would be exempt from paying such damages. In the event that a parent or employee sues a school district for Y2K-related computer failure, such as if the payroll system goes down or a transcript is delayed, the district would be required to pay only compensatory damages—and only after the district has had a chance to get its systems in order.

“This gives schools some breathing room before the lawyers get involved,” eSchool News ethics and law columnist David Splitt said. “What it really means is that schools have an opportunity to protect themselves and to enact contingency plans if something does go wrong.”

The legislation was passed after a lengthy debate about how to limit what some consider a potential flood of lawsuits because of the problem. Experts have estimated that the cost of potential damages from Y2K-related failures could total more than $1 trillion.

The Y2K problem, also called the millennium bug, stems from an old programming shortcut that used only the last two digits of the year. Because these programs could read the digits “00” as 1900 instead of 2000, some computer systems—especially older ones—might fail when the date changes to 2000.

The bill, said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chief Senate sponsor along with Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., will “make sure that America’s prosperity does not screech to a halt when the calendar pages slip over to start a new millennium.”

Business groups and the high-tech industry lobbied hard for the legislation, saying it would allow companies to focus on solving the problem without worrying about the threat of a lawsuit if their systems fail.

But some consumer groups see the legislation as an infringement on basic legal rights. President Clinton repeatedly threatened to veto the originally passed House and Senate bills, saying they went too far in restricting the rights of Americans to go to court and win full compensation for company negligence.

Wyden and Dodd led intense negotiations that gave consumers some added protections in the bill and won the White House’s reluctant acceptance. For example, the compromise legislation increases the monetary cap for class-action lawsuits from $1 million to $10 million before a case can be moved to the more expensive federal courts.

White House Chief of Staff John Podesta said it was only because of the “unique and unprecedented” nature of the Y2K problem that the president would sign the bill. Normally, he said, “the administration would oppose many of the extraordinary steps taken in this legislation to alter liability and procedural rules.”

To satisfy critics who fear it will open the doors to further efforts by Congress to change liability laws, the legislation will go off the books after three years.

Here’s a summary of the legislation’s key points:

• It requires a 30-day notice to the defendant of the plaintiff’s intention to sue, along with a description of the problem. If the defendant responds with a plan to remediate, then an additional 60 days is allowed to resolve the problem before a suit can be brought. If the defendant doesn’t agree to fix the problem, the plaintiff can sue on the 31st day.

• Municipalities and government entities (including school districts) are exempt from punitive damages. For small businesses with fewer than 50 employees, punitive damages are capped at $250,000 or three times the amount of compensatory damages, whichever is less.

• The law does not interfere with parties who have already agreed on Y2K terms and conditions. It ensures that, in most cases, defendants pay only for damages they are responsible for (proportional liability).

• Personal injury and wrongful death claims aren’t covered by the law.

Senate Commerce Committee’s Y2K site

http://www.senate.gov/~commerce/issues/ y2k.htm


Filtering mandate looms for schools: House passes bill to require filtering software for eRate recipients

Public schools receiving eRate discounts would be required to install internet-content filters on their computer systems, according to a bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives. A similar measure was approved by a Senate subcommittee the following week and was headed for a vote in the full Senate at press time.

The general news media paid little attention to the House action, which came late in the evening of June 17 amid a flurry of controversial legislation. The filtering measure is one part of a broad juvenile justice bill, which, among other things, would let public schools post the Ten Commandments. Just a day later, the House shot down a contentious gun reform bill.

In spite of its low profile, passage of the House version of the internet-filter proposal was not lost on some its fiercest critics.

The day after the House approved the juvenile justice bill by a 287-139 margin, the American Library Association (ALA) released a statement denouncing the filtering provision.

“This amendment would impose a one-size-fits-all federal mandate that undermines local decisions made by libraries, schools, and their governing boards on how to provide a safe and rewarding experience for children in using the internet,” said ALA President Ann Symons.

The amendment was offered by Republican Reps. Bob Franks of New Jersey and Chip Pickering of Mississippi. Franks originally introduced the idea to the House as a stand-alone bill called the Children’s Internet Protection Act.

“For generations, schools and libraries have routinely decided what books are appropriate for children to read,” Franks said in a statement. “The Children’s Internet Protection Act would merely require that these institutions exercise the same standard of care when it comes to the internet.”

The Senate’s version of the Children’s Internet Protection Act, sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was approved by the Commerce Committee on June 23.

Meanwhile, the House’s juvenile justice bill, filtering mandate included, has been introduced in the Senate and is likely headed to committee.

Either way, the mandate would require schools and libraries to use filtering technology if they receive any federal subsidies for internet connections. The proposal, though, would let local school districts and library boards determine for themselves which filter to install.

Critics argue that no internet filter is foolproof. Because many types of filters block content containing certain key words, students might be locked out of web sites about AIDS, breast cancer, gay rights, and sex education, among others, critics say.

More sophisticated content-filtering applications use alternative screening methods in addition to or instead of keyword blocking.

But no matter how schools address the legislation if it’s enacted, a new financial burden will result.

A last-minute compromise on the Senate bill produced a change that would allow filtering software to be eligible for eRate discounts. According to current program rules, filtering software is not eligible for eRate support.

Still, schools and libraries would have to pay up to 80 percent of the cost of the software themselves.

Schools that choose to disregard the mandate, meanwhile, would lose future eRate considerations. But that’s not all. Because the amendment is retroactive, they also would be required to pay back discounts already received for the period commencing with the law’s start date.

Over the last 18 months, $1.9 billion has been committed to schools and libraries for discounts of as much as 90 percent on telecommunications services, internet access, and wiring. The Federal Communications Commission recently approved $2.25 billion in funding for this year.

American Library Association


Rep. Bob Franks


Rep. Chip Pickering


Sen. John McCain



Commerce Department report: Schools can narrow internet’s ‘racial ravine’: Gaps in internet use persist, even when holding income constant

The disparity between whites and black and Hispanic Americans who own computers and use the internet is growing significantly toward a “racial ravine,” in some cases even after accounting for differences in income, the federal government reported July 8. The government’s report underscores how internet access in public schools is crucial to bridging the gap between the technology “haves” and “have nots.”

The Commerce Department’s third “Falling Through the Net” survey, published by the department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, shows dramatic gains in the number of Americans embracing technology. But it also cites money, education, and whether a person lives in an urban area as key factors affecting how likely they are to use those high-tech tools.

“The ‘net’ is increasingly becoming part of our national heritage—for some people,” said Larry Irving, a Commerce Department undersecretary and President Clinton’s top telecommunications adviser. Those least likely to use high-tech tools “would be low-income blacks or Hispanics in a rural community,” he said.

Most troubling for government experts were indications that these disparities can’t be blamed solely on differences in income. Among families earning $15,000 to $35,000, for example, more than 33 percent of whites owned computers, but only 19 percent of blacks did—and that gap has widened nearly 62 percent since 1994, despite plunging computer prices.

“Even when holding income constant, there is still a yawning divide among different races and origins,” the report said, warning of a society in which “the ‘haves’ have only become more information-rich…while the ‘have-nots’ are lagging even further behind.”

But the government survey also found, predictably, that as income rises, the likelihood of computer ownership and internet use also rises. Families with incomes above $75,000 were more than five times as likely to own a computer at home and 10 times more likely to have internet access than families who earned less than $10,000.

And the gaps in computer ownership and internet use narrowed between white families and blacks and Hispanics earning more than $50,000.

“There is a way to buy your way out,” said Irving, adding that falling computer prices will continue to help. “Above $75,000, there is almost no gap between blacks and whites.”

The report, the third such survey by the government since 1995, did not suggest specific ways to encourage internet use or computer ownership, except to recommend that public facilities such as schools, libraries, and community centers continue to provide online access.

Some industry experts suggested that minorities might find computers and the internet difficult to learn, or at least consider the web a medium whose benefits haven’t been sufficiently explained.

“I really don’t think the advantage of being online has been instilled in them,” said Trevor Farrington, a director at the Massachusetts-based African American Internetwork, a web site aimed at blacks. “I really don’t think they understand it. They think it’s too technical, (but) it’s as easy to use as TV and it’s better. Once they understand that, it should grow.”

That’s where using the technology in public school classrooms can help, according to the study.

Other key findings in the report:

• About 47 percent of all whites own computers, but fewer than half as many blacks do. About 26 percent of Hispanics own computers, but fully 55 percent of Asians do. Asian families also are most likely to have internet access, with 36 percent online.

• A child in a low-income white family is three times more likely to have internet access than a child in an economically comparable black family and four times more likely than a child in a comparable Hispanic family.

• People with college degrees are more than eight times more likely to own a computer and 16 times more likely to have internet access than people with elementary school educations.

“Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide”

http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/ digitaldivide


From the Publisher: The body electric

A fair test of someone’s cultural orientation might be whether Bradbury or Whitman leaps to mind when you mention “I sing the body electric.”

After a recent visit with John Seely Brown, chief scientist for Xerox, I was definitely thinking of the former. Not because science fiction has anything to do with Brown’s work. He’s a perfectly serious scientist. It’s just that what he talks about can summon up recollections of old science fiction plots.

Brown is the head of Xerox’s PARC (the legendary Palo Alto Research Center, where the mouse and the graphical user interface were born).

PARC played a pivotal part in real life a generation ago and also had a role in The Pirates of Silicon Valley, a new film about the founding of Apple and Microsoft. At one point in the movie, an apopletic Apple chief, Steve Jobs, is railing at Microsoft’s Bill Gates about the Windows’ graphical user interface (GUI) based on a desktop metaphor.

Windows, Jobs snarls, ripped off that GUI from Apple!

Nonsense, counters Gates, Apple and Microsoft both swiped the GUI from PARC. “What?” demands the fictional Gates, in the movie’s best moment: “You’re mad at me because you stole it first?”

On a recent swing through Silicon Valley, I noticed that Apple has run down the pirate flag that once reportedly flew over its Cupertino, Calif., campus. Nowadays, Apple is hard at work pumping out pastel iMacs and powerful enterprise systems such as NetBoot, Apple’s spiffy new network administration solution that runs on its OS X server.

From pirates to pastels, change is endemic to Silicon Valley, and changes born there have a way of affecting us all.

In fact, change is the central thing engaging the scientists at Xerox PARC today. For one thing, Brown assured me—as the poor guy must have to do again and again—Xerox and its research center are a lot better now at recognizing the value of their own innovations.

But it’s change on a much grander scale that really intrigues him. The pace of technology-driven change is mind-boggling, he noted. What’s more, he predicted, we will continue to experience the “hyper-exponential growth” of technology for years to come.

Even the basic metaphor of technology is about to be overhauled, he said. The mechanistic metaphor — windows, tools, desktops — is transforming into a biological metaphor, according to Brown: computational immune systems, electronic neural networks, digital nervous systems.

Xerox, said Brown, now caches the contents of the entire world wide web. Doing so has allowed PARC scientists to understand phenomena such as “internet storms,” spontaneously occurring outbreaks of electronic congestion.

“You encounter them all the time,” said Brown; but without Xerox’s huge cache of internet data, scientists wouldn’t be able to tell exactly what’s going on. “Xerox is extremely interested in system health,” said Brown.

Computational immune systems that mimic human ones might reduce these internet outbreaks, he suggested: “The human body has longevity that greatly exceeds expectations. That’s because of the body’s immune system. Our immune system looks for strange stuff in the body and then goes and attacks it.”

“Bots,” electronic entities dispatched to the internet, might serve a similar function, Brown said.

To some, it might be new to “sing the body electric,” but Walt Whitman and then Ray Bradbury were on to the metaphor a long time ago.

At Xerox PARC, Brown makes sure his faculty includes poets and artists as well as engineers. Survival depends on adaptability, he explained, and in an age of hyper-exponential change, adaptability demands diversity.

Both Whitman and Bradbury would have liked that.


Speech-recognition technology is becoming more than just talk for schools: New advances could lead to its widespread use

A voice-mail system that would instantly and effortlessly guide an after-hours caller to the voice-mail box of the appropriate staff member would be a boon to your schools’ image in the community. Until now, that level of sophistication has been out of reach for most schools. But that soon could change.

Recent advances are promising to make speech-recognition technology a near-term solution for the school field, especially for specialized applications such as voice-driven directory assistance and information retrieval systems.

“There has been a striking improvement in the accuracy and ease of use of voice-recognition systems just in the last few years,” said Peter Grunwald, president of the market research firm Grunwald Associates. “It clearly has some interesting potential as we go forward.”

Up to now, speech-recognition technology hasn’t caught on at large. Factors such as background noise, variations in human speech, and prohibitive cost have limited its use in schools mainly to helping students with disabilities, who otherwise couldn’t input data, or to helping students develop language and reading skills (“LISTEN: Voice-recognition system helps student readers,” Oct. 1998). But the technology has been improving dramatically in recent years, to the point where it soon could be used much more widely.

Background noise, for example, can be cancelled largely through the use of noise-cancelling microphones attached to headsets. And improved chip technology has reduced the system requirements for using voice-recognition software to what is fast becoming standard in new PCs for the classroom—a Pentium II or equivalent processor with from 48 to 64 MB of RAM and a sound card or built-in sound system.

One traditional stumbling block to the technology’s widespread adoption: To understand human speech, voice-recognition systems have required users to “enroll,” or train, on the systems first. Enrolling lets the software “learn” a user’s dialect and speech patterns so it can accurately understand what he or she is saying. For most systems, this has meant as much as an hour of straight reading just to set up the software for a particular user.

But improved technology has reduced the time it takes to enroll users. Lernout & Houspie, a leader in speech technology, introduced a new version of its Voice Xpress speech recognition software in June that the company claims is its most user-friendly yet. Version 4 of Voice Xpress reduces enrollment time to just 10 minutes, according to Anatoly Tikhman, president of the company’s applications division.

Speech-recognition technology has begun to infiltrate even conventional applications. General Magic, of Sunnyvale, Calif., has introduced a free service that uses voice-recognition technology to let you check your eMail over the phone, for example.

Called myTalk, the service gives members a toll-free number to call to hear their eMail messages read automatically by the system’s computers. At any point during the process, you can tell the system to skip to the next message, save, delete, or even reply. The system records your response as a voice file that is then attached to an outgoing message.

Another example is Corel’s WordPerfect Office 2000 suite, which is available in an optional Voice-Powered Edition. The software integrates Dragon’s Naturally Speaking voice-recognition technology with Corel’s WordPerfect word processing package to let users create documents by speaking into a headset microphone.

National competency center

Widespread use by students is probably still far off in schools. “A lab or classroom with 30 students using computers would be bedlam with everyone talking to their computers at once,” points out eSchool News columnist Trevor Shaw, who serves as director of technology for St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in New Jersey.

Still, the infiltration of speech recognition technology into mainstream applications is an indication that the technology is beginning to arrive. And for some specialized applications, such as voice-activated information retrieval or directory assistance systems, the technology is ready for use in schools right now.

Applications such as these were on display at an open house hosted by IBM and Western Connecticut State University on June 22. Through its partnership with IBM, the university has developed a national “competency center” for speech technology, where researchers develop and test voice-recognition applications for the education market.

One of those applications, which will be piloted in K-12 schools this fall, is called Educator’s Toolkit. Its purpose is to create a classroom environment in which teachers can walk freely around the room wearing headsets and talk to the technology around them to control it without using pointers or remote control devices.

“When you try to use technology in the classroom, it’s not seamless—it takes time away from teaching content to launch applications manually,” said Marla Fischer, director of the university’s Center for Technology Research and Productivity, of which the Center of Competence for Speech Technology is a part. “This is a way for teachers to use voice commands to launch video or computer applications, so teachers can focus specifically on classroom instruction.”

Another application to be piloted this fall is Homework Assistant. Developed jointly by IBM and Wizzard Software, Homework Assistant uses an animated icon, or “avatar,” that talks to students and asks them a series of questions. Based on a student’s verbal responses, the software is able to assess his or her individual learning style so homework assignments can be adjusted accordingly.

For example, if the software discovers that a student learns best by hearing the spoken word, it creates an assignment based on speaking. If the student likes to read and learn, the homework will be delivered in written form.

The center plans to pilot Homework Assistant this fall in youth centers and public schools in Connecticut. At the Harambee Youth Center in Danbury, for example, about 30 students will be involved in a study of the system’s effectiveness. Fifteen students will use the speech technology to complete their homework assignments, and 15 will be given traditional homework assistance. Grade-point averages for the two groups will be compared at the end of the school year to assess the results.

Directory Dialer

At its open house, the Center of Competence for Speech Technology also demonstrated an application used last year by the university. Called Directory Dialer, it’s a voice-activated call-routing system that lets callers leave a message or find a telephone number by asking for the person they wish to speak to by name.

It also finds departments and locations, and this fall it will be expanded to give callers a fax number, pager number, or eMail address as well.

“It’s a real productivity tool,” Fischer said. “It’s got the potential to be very powerful.”

For one thing, the technology behind Directory Dialer is speaker-independent. Because it simply matches the name indicated by the caller to the names in its database, the system has a high degree of accuracy and doesn’t require users to be enrolled, Fischer said.

Directory Dialer also eliminates the maze of touch-tone driven menus. For K-12 schools, Fischer added, it could be a particularly useful application: If a parent calls after 3 p.m., he or she can still get information without having to suffer through a lengthy menu of touch-tone options, thereby improving communications.

Directory Dialer is available commercially through IBM. The software runs on IBM’s Netfinity server with a 400 MHz or faster processor, is capable of handling up to 250,000 names, can be monitored and updated through the internet, and is priced according to the size of the directory, hardware, and services needed.

Which witch is which

IBM’s ViaVoice speech-recognition technology, like that of other vendors, still isn’t perfect. In a demonstration at the June 22 open house, a computer running ViaVoice correctly spelled, “Last summer Barry rowed the boat while Susan rode her bicycle down the road” and “Yesterday I read the book with the red cover.” But it was tripped up by the sentence, “On Halloween could you tell which witch was which?”

Grunwald cautioned that schools thinking of investing in speech-recognition software should understand what they hope to accomplish with it—and what they’re prepared to tolerate in terms of its accuracy—before they plunk down any money.

“Ninety-six percent accuracy sounds very high—but in practice, a four percent error rate could defeat the purpose of what you’re trying to accomplish with the technology,” he said.

Lernout & Houspie


General Magic Inc.


Corel Corp.




Wizzard Software


Western Connecticut State University



Honor your tech staff on Oct. 5: National “Techies Day” celebration aims to spur interest in IT careers

Schools will have an opportunity this fall to recognize the achievements of their technology staffs as part of a national effort to focus public attention on technology professionals. Sponsors of the effort, dubbed “Techies Day,” hope it will spur an interest in technology and help reduce the shortage of candidates for technology-related fields.

The national Techies Day celebration, to be held Tuesday, Oct. 5, is being organized by a group of technology companies, education groups, and professional organizations, including technology news source C/NET and the online technology recruitment company Techies.com.

Planned as an annual event, Techies Day will have technology achievement as its inaugural theme. Events will include public recognition programs, private corporate celebrations, grassroots activities, and a school outreach program, appropriately called “Techies Day at School.”

For the schools component of Techies Day, announced June 22 during the National Education Computing Conference in Atlantic City, organizers are encouraging activities that recognize a school’s or district’s technology professionals, while helping pique student interest in technology-related careers.

“Technology continues to have a significant impact in enhancing today’s education,” said Linda Roberts, special adviser for educational technology at the U.S. Department of Education. “It’s important that schools celebrate the achievements of their technology coordinators and to heighten awareness of future opportunities.”

Desperate need

For employers, a desperate need already exists for a new crop of technology professionals. According to a new study by META Group, an information technology (IT) consultant, the IT worker shortage is reaching “record levels.”

META estimates there are 400,000 unfilled IT positions in the United States, and the number of students graduating with computer and information systems degrees is far too low to meet current or future demand.

“The perception among prospective IT students is that an IT curriculum is exceptionally demanding, particularly as the employers continue to seek employees with broad-based business skills as well,” said Maria Schafer, program director for META Group Publications.

A recent Commerce Department study suggests the problem may only get worse. According to the study, titled “The Emerging Digital Economy II,” demand for IT professionals will continue to increase exponentially in the next few years.

Almost half the U.S. work force will be employed by industries that are major producers or intensive users of IT products and services by 2006, the study predicts.

A report by the American Electronics Association (AEA) also predicts the IT shortage is bound to get worse, as more and more undergraduates shy away from technology and science majors.

AEA says high-tech degrees—including those in engineering, math, physics, and computer science—declined 5 percent between 1990 and 1996. Preliminary findings from 1997 and 1998 show the trend is continuing.

Organizers of Techies Day are hoping their national event will help reverse that trend.

“We think part of the reason there’s such a shortage of technology professionals may be that their overall contributions are often overlooked,” said Techies.com chief executive Doug Berg.

Conflicting evidence

Just how much interest is there among today’s high school students when it comes to careers in computers or the internet? Depends on whom you ask.

One recent study indicated that a career in computers or the internet is the top choice among the 300 randomly selected high school students polled.

The study, conducted nationally by the Lemelson-Massachusetts Institute of Technology Program, found that 57 percent of respondents were “extremely interested” or “very interested” in computer careers.

But, oddly enough, a study focusing exclusively on high school students in California’s Silicon Valley found that few of the 1,160 students polled view a future career in technology as appealing.

Commissioned by Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, the latter survey also showed that many students were unaware of the variety of high-tech jobs available.

“We have to reach out to students, to let them know not only how IT professionals power our economy, but how exciting and rewarding a field IT is,” said C/NET Vice President Chris Barr. “And we need to start early, when our children are young—that’s why Techies Day at School is such a critical part of the Techies Day program.”

For a complete, turnkey package of effective activities for Techies Day, visit the event’s web site and sign up for a free eMailed educators kit. The web site also will host a community bulletin board to link technology professionals with schools in their area for classroom visits.

American Electronics Association




“The Emerging Digital Economy II”


Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network


Lemelson-MIT Program


META Group




Techies Day Event Homepage



Supreme Court to rule on $800 million in technology funds for parochial schools: Opponents say sharing of technology violates First Amendment

In a case the Clinton administration says could determine the scope of its efforts to connect every classroom in America to the internet, the Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether computers and other instructional materials paid for with taxpayer money can be used by religious schools.

At issue is a provision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, which gives money to public schools for special services and instructional equipment. Public school districts are required to share the equipment in a “secular, neutral, and nonideological” way with students enrolled in private schools within their boundaries.

Last year, a New Orleans-based federal appeals court struck down the provision by ruling it was unconstitutional for the Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, school system to lend or give computers purchased with federal funds to religiously affiliated schools within the district.

The appeals court based its decision on an earlier Supreme Court distinction between textbooks and other educational materials. In a series of school aid cases in the 1970s, the high court ruled it was lawful for public schools to lend textbooks to parochial schools. At the same time, the court ruled that other instructional materials crossed the line of separation between church and state.

Lawyers for the parents of parochial school children in Louisiana say the decades-old interpretation should be expanded to permit the sharing of twenty-first century instructional materials as well as textbooks. They say the case—first brought before the courts by three Jefferson Parish taxpayers in 1985—is about giving students access to “modern technological equipment and materials.”

“(The appeals court ruling) consigns those who attend religiously affiliated schools to the use of textbooks . . . while children of other taxpayers are using graphing calculators to solve polynomial equations and reading about the latest Mesopotamian archeological discoveries on CD-ROMs,” attorneys wrote in their brief to the Supreme Court.

The Clinton administration agrees. In a separate brief filed with the Supreme Court in May, Solicitor General Seth Waxman argued that the appeals court ruling could jeopardize the administration’s plan to provide all children in public or private schools with equal access to technology.

The lower court’s ruling could affect the distribution of some $800 million in federal Title III funding for technology, Waxman argued. Under the direction of ESEA, school districts are required “to provide for the equitable participation of private schoolchildren in the benefits of such federal programs.”

The ruling also could affect the participation of parochial schools in the eRate, the federal program that gives telecommunications discounts to schools and libraries. Though the eRate isn’t authorized through ESEA, it is a federally funded program that applies to public and private schools equally.

The case “is likely to be the most important church-state lawsuit to come before the Supreme Court in over two decades,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

High stakes for parochial schools

More than 70 percent of the students who benefit from federal funding authorized under ESEA attend public schools, but many of the rest attend parochial schools. In Jefferson Parish, where three taxpayers sued federal, state, and local officials over the issue in 1985, 41 of 46 private schools participating in the federal program are religiously affiliated.

The stakes are high for religiously affiliated schools. A spokesman for the Archdiocese of New Orleans told the Times-Picayune that its schools in the eight New Orleans area parishes received $17 million in federal education funding during the 1997-98 school year.

The 1985 lawsuit argued that the ESEA provision requiring public schools to share federal resources equally with parochial school children was unlawful under the Constitution’s First Amendment ban on an “establishment of religion.”

Parents of children in religiously affiliated schools intervened in the case to defend the program. A federal judge upheld the parochial aid in 1997, but the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling last August.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court relied heavily on two decades-old Supreme Court rulings it said banned provision of any materials other than textbooks to parochial schools.

In an appeal to the Supreme Court, which the justices agreed to hear this fall, lawyers for the parents of parochial school students argued that more recent high court rulings have blunted, if not obliterated, the effect of the court’s parochial-aid decisions in the 1970s.

In 1997, a Supreme Court far less demanding about church-state separation ruled that public school teachers can offer remedial help at parochial schools. And in 1993, the court said public school districts may provide sign-language interpreters for deaf students in parochial schools.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas have led the movement toward greater governmental accommodation of religion. Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, and President Clinton’s two appointees, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, have resisted the movement.

Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy have cast crucial “swing votes” in recent church-state cases and could end up doing so again in this case.

Lawyers for the parents of parochial school students said the programs at issue in the earlier cases of the 1990s presented far greater danger of governmental indoctrination than access to modern resources such as computers and the internet.

“Computers don’t teach religion,” said Patricia Dean, a lawyer for the Jefferson Parish school district. “This program gives general aid, neutrally applied, to raise educational standards for everyone.”

But lawyers for the taxpayers who challenged the program called that argument a flawed theory—one that would find no fault with directly giving religious schools new libraries, desks, or copy machines.

If computers and CD-ROMs are essential teaching tools these days, they said, then approval of the federal program would allow “substantial aid to the religious mission of the sectarian school.”

The case is Mitchell v. Helms, 98-1648. A decision is not expected until next year.

Northwestern University’s Oyez Project (includes links to current Supreme Court cases)



Internet subsidies for private schools are okay, U. S. District Court rules

Just one week after the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that could decide the scope of federal technology funding for religious schools, a federal judge in Wisconsin ruled that a statewide subsidy of telecommunications services does not violate the Constitution by including parochial as well as public schools.

The program in question, called “Educational Telecommunications Access,” offers discounts on high-speed internet access and video data lines to public and private Wisconsin schools and colleges. The program is administered by the Technology for Education in Wisconsin Board, created as part of the 1997-99 state budget.

The Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sued members of the board last November, claiming that parochial schools should not be allowed to receive the discounts because their participation constitutes an illegal state subsidy of religion.

Schools that take part in the subsidy program may request access to one data line or video link. The schools pay about $100 per month for internet access through a T-1 line, and the state pays the rest.

The program does not control the content of information transmitted by the links, which could be used by parochial schools to transmit religious information. But U.S. District Judge John Shabaz ruled June 23 that the subsidies provide a relatively small benefit to religious schools.

“Any school, public or private, religious or secular, is eligible to participate,” Shabaz wrote in his decision. A key factor in the decision, Shabaz said, was the fact that the program sends money directly to the service providers, not to the schools themselves, so parochial schools can’t convert the subsidized telecommunications links into a direct economic benefit to be used for the advancement of their religious mission.

However, cash grants to assist schools that had set up internet access on their own before the program went into effect are not constitutional, Shabaz said, because they could have the effect of advancing religion. Cash grants could be used by parochial schools to purchase religious software, for example.

It remains to be seen whether Shabaz’s ruling will have any effect on the Supreme Court’s decision, which is expected next spring. Meanwhile, the plaintiffs in the Wisconsin case plan to appeal.

“It seems a little bit like pretense to say these huge subsidies don’t help advance religion or foster entanglements,” said Anne Gaylor, head of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. “It didn’t seem logical to us.”


Newslines–California curbs funding for online charter schools

To ensure that local funds pay for local education, California lawmakers have put new funding strings on charter schools that teach students via the internet.

The new state law is part of a budget package signed by Gov. Gray Davis, which includes a $25 million appropriation to develop a formula for funding future charter schools.

The law is aimed particularly at charter schools that get state funding for students who are home-schooled or given lessons over the internet. It would require these schools to give students the same amount of hourly instruction as regular public schools, keep student attendance records, and give students the statewide achievement test to maintain funding.

It also would require the schools to serve students no farther away than an adjacent county.

Democrats who approved the restrictions at Davis’ request say they are needed to curb abuses, such as school districts approving charter schools that are hundreds of miles away.

Republicans who opposed the law, however, say it will stifle the creativity that charter schools were designed to bring to education and put about three dozen schools currently serving 21,000 students out of business.


Chicago school’s aerospace program takes learning to new heights

Chicago’s Fenger Academy has become the first high school in the nation to house a NASA-backed program called the Science, Engineering, Mathematics, and Aerospace Academy (SEMAA).

The academy, which is intended to expose disadvantaged students to cutting-edge technologies, features a high-tech aeronautics education laboratory complete with nine computerized workstations, where students can learn about satellite global positioning, remote sensing, amateur radio, and aircraft design.

Seven other SEMAA programs exist across the country, reaching thousands of children and their families in cities such as St. Louis, Detroit, Baltimore, and Atlanta. But those programs are all located on the campuses of community colleges or museums. Students at Fenger Academy will be the first to experience the program on their own turf.

“Our partnership with NASA will better prepare our students to meet academic standards and promote the careers of the future,” said Paul Vallas, chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools. “SEMAA is a win-win situation not only for Fenger students, but for the seven feeder schools who will use the facility on the weekends.”

The program’s goal is to motivate greater numbers of students to pursue careers in science, math, and related fields, through learning experiences that will increase their participation and foster their success in college preparatory courses and post-secondary education.

Fenger Academy students will visit the lab as part of their regular schedule, while students from Fenger’s feeder schools will have access to the facility on Saturdays.

Fenger Principal Janice Ollarvia said the program will be used as a curriculum enhancement. This summer, Fenger teachers will undergo training on how to implement the program for all 800 high school students.

Chicago Public Schools spent more than $66,000 to prepare Fenger Academy for the program, demolishing a shuttered woodshop and transforming the site into a state-of-the-art facility.

Now, the woodshop site is home to high-tech workstations, virtual reality equipment, and a specially designed wind tunnel.

As part of a long-term project, students will plan inter-city flights to various NASA locations across the country.

The students will have to design an aircraft that can withstand a wind-tunnel test, research weather patterns, figure out fueling needs and costs, and use the internet to make reservations at their destination.

The project culminates in a virtual flight using a flight simulator and an elaborate headset to guide the plane to its destination.

At the SEMAA dedication ceremony in June, Vallas was joined by U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., NASA officials, SEMAA partners, and astronaut Joan Higginbotham, who attended Whitney Young Magnet High School in Chicago.

Jackson, who has a keen interest in exposing traditionally underserved students to high-tech fields, was a key player in securing a grant from NASA to bring SEMAA to the Chicago school.

NASA’s Office of Equal Opportunities Programs provided a $525,000 two-year grant to establish the new academy.

“This program not only piques students’ interest in the fascinating world of science and technology, but it does so in an intriguing, entertaining, and thought-provoking fashion. I’d like this in every school system in America,” Jackson said.

A vision of former Ohio Congressman Louis Stokes, SEMAA got its start in 1993 with the help of NASA astronaut and former U.S. Sen. John Glenn. The first academy was established at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland.

Chicago Public Schools


NASA Office of Equal Opportunities Programs


Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.