Dept. of Ed’s ‘eRate and the Digital Divide’ details the eRate’s impacts

With all the talk of political threats to the eRate program, you might be asking yourself exactly what the eRate has done for U.S. schools thus far. The answer is contained in the U.S Department of Education’s 231-page report, entitled “eRate and the Digital Divide: A Preliminary Analysis From the Integrated Studies of Educational Technology.” This report offers the first comprehensive consideration of the effects of the federal Universal Service Administrative Company’s eRate program, administered by the Schools and Libraries Division of USAC and created as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 “to provide discounts on the cost of telecommunications services and equipment to all public and private schools and libraries.” The aim of the eRate is to make internet connections more affordable for schools, particularly for schools in lower-income areas. The report—available in PDF format—analyzes the effects of the eRate on targeted schools. Prepared by Michael J. Puma, Duncan D. Chaplin, and Andreas D. Pape, this September 2000 publication provides an overview of ED’s findings. To get a general overview of the report, start with the Executive Summary.


Help students develop safe surfing habits with

The NetSmartz Workshop, an educational resource for parents, teachers, and children of all ages, was created by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) to address the need for children’s internet safety education. Compaq Computer Corp. donated $1.5 million to establish an on-site internet studio at NCMEC with 3D animators, artists, and web developers. This donation allows the NetSmartz Workshop to be shared with children, parents, and educators worldwide via the internet at no cost. The project’s web site features age-appropriate, interactive games and activities that use the latest web technologies to entertain while they teach kids how to stay safe on the web. The site targets every level of the educational process by containing a segment designed especially for kids, a segment for teens, and one for parents and educators. Users can participate in activities, read suggested discussion questions, and get classroom-ready lesson plans related to the site’s online activities.


Point your browser to this web site for practical PowerPoint guidance

“PowerPoint in the Classroom” is an eight-part tutorial to help K-12 teachers incorporate the use of Microsoft’s PowerPoint effectively in the classroom. PowerPoint is a high-powered software tool used for presenting information in a dynamic slide show format. Text, charts, graphs, sound effects, and video are just some of the elements PowerPoint can incorporate into school presentations. Whether it’s a classroom lesson, a parents’ group meeting, a teachers’ seminar, or an unattended kiosk at the science fair, learning PowerPoint can help educators and administrators make a powerful impression on their audience. This site helps educators learn the basics of using PowerPoint’s toolbars, laying out information, saving, and moving information to the presentation site. Just to tweak your memory, the tutorial includes a quiz question at the end of each new section. The “Cool For School” page is a great source for extra tips and tricks for using PowerPoint in the classroom.


Don’t be afraid to call or even visit program officers

At February’s eSchool News Grants and Funding conference in New Orleans, federal program officers were unable to attend because of the change in administrations. This dilemma led me to start one of my sessions with the following piece of advice: You can visit program officers at their offices, and you should!

Program officers are responsible for providing information about the grant program they are affiliated with and giving technical assistance to potential applicants. The contact information for a grant’s program officer can be found in the grant’s request for proposals (RFP).

I just attended an RFP workshop in which the federal program officer actually gave his home eMail address and said we should not hesitate to contact him on weekends if we needed to. Take advantage of this contact information, but don’t abuse it.

Don’t be afraid to get in touch with program officers and draw upon their knowledge and expertise. I have found many program officers to be extremely helpful and receptive to answering my questions. In some cases, this has saved me from submitting a proposal that would not score high enough to be competitive.

I suggest that you contact program officers to do the following:

o Discuss your intended project before starting the proposal, especially if you are not clear whether there is a “tight fit” between your idea and the purpose of the grant program.

o Ask specific questions you might have related to your project, your proposal, or the grant program itself. Do not, however, pick up the phone and call a program officer if you haven’t even read the RFP yet. Program officers are far too busy for these types of “fishing expedition” phone calls!

o Ask them to refer you to a prior grantee who may share some similarities with you in terms of project ideas or demographics.

Depending on your level of interest in federal grants and the travel funds available in your district’s budget, it might be worth your while to schedule a trip to Washington to visit with several program officers face to face. This is easy to do, because the various grant offices are located in close proximity to one another. I would encourage you to schedule these visits during “down” time (usually the summer), rather than at the height of the grants season. It is conceivable that spending a day or two in Washington could result in your seeing as many as 10 or more program officers!

Prepare in advance for your visit with the program officers. Review the RFPs for the grant programs you are interested in and make a list of the questions that you have regarding the RFPs. Write brief abstracts of your proposed projects, so the program officers have something they can read and react to. Take careful notes of your discussion, so you have something you can refer to when you return. Ask the program officers if they will review a draft of your proposal before final submission (yes, it’s hard to believe, but some federal program officers in certain programs will do this!).

Remember, program officers want high-quality proposals—and they want to help you produce them. View them as important members of your grant-seeking team.


Bill would give unspent eRate funds to poorest schools

The nation’s poorest schools would be eligible for up to $100 million in unspent eRate discounts to modernize their internet labs and computer hardware, under a bill now before Congress. The trouble is, no one can agree on whether these unspent funds actually exist

Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, introduced the legislation, called the Children’s Access to Technology Act, because a recent report from the federal General Accounting Office (GAO) found schools were not completing all the necessary eRate paperwork. As a result, nearly $1.3 billion in committed funds for 1998 and 1999 have gone unspent, according to the GAO.

The bill would direct the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to establish a lottery to distribute these allegedly unspent funds. Title I schools could win up to $25,000 in extra funds to update their internet and computer hardware.

“We cannot afford to lose any eRate funding at the end of the year simply because some schools are not following up with their funding,” Green said in a statement. “In these instances, the unspent funds can be allocated to truly needy schools that are struggling to improve the delivery of internet services to their students.”

In the GAO report, called “Schools and Libraries Program: Application and Invoice Review Procedures Need Strengthening,” lawmakers asked the GAO to investigate (a) the amount of eRate funding requested by applicants, (b) the amount of funds committed to them, and (c) the amount of committed funds schools have actually used.

Under the eRate, schools are required to submit a form outlining what telecommunications services they have implemented, so they can be reimbursed. SLD spokesman Mel Blackwell said although this final step is widely publicized, not all schools follow through with it.

Blackwell said the data cited in the GAO report is from a certain period of time and only represents “a snapshot” of the actual situation. For example, in Year One, $4.37 million was unspent, but SLD “rolled it into Year Two, so we didn’t have to collect it from the telecommunications companies in Year Two.”

Each year, the SLD gives the FCC a projection of the demand for eRate funds, so the agency can collect the money from telecommunications companies. By rolling the unspent funds over from year to year, SLD can reduce the amount of funds the FCC needs to collect from companies, Blackwell said.

“There weren’t any unused funds in Year One, [they all were] rolled into Year Two,” Blackwell said.

Carolyn Breedlove, a technology lobbyist for the National Education Association, agreed, saying the data used in the GAO report was collected at “inappropriate times” because it was collected one month before the program’s deadline.

As for Green’s bill, Breedlove speculates that his purpose is to start a discussion about some the problems surrounding the eRate.

“He has some legitimate questions, but I think they can be answered without this legislation,” Breedlove said. “He’s probably trying to get some discussion going and trying to get some answers.”

Blackwell said there probably won’t be any unspent funds in Year Four, either, considering this year’s demand for eRate funding is estimated at $5.787 billion—the highest ever—from 37,188 applications.

In fact, the SLD predicts it won’t be able to fund internal connections for the neediest schools—those eligible for 90-percent discounts—for the first time ever this year.

“It speaks to the need,” Breedlove said, adding that many schools ask for more eRate funding than what they expect to get, and some schools probably applied for the first time.

The GAO report also looked into whether eRate funds have been committed to products and services that are ineligible for support under the program’s rules, whether the program’s administrative costs are increasing, and how these costs compare with those of other federal programs.

“We found that SLD reviewers failed to identify other ineligible items, resulting in at least $6 million in funding errors,” the report said.

Since the eRate began, the SLD has continued to streamline the program and fix problems. Breedlove said it’s hard to standardize the criteria of what is and isn’t eligible, because human beings evaluate the applications.


Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas

Schools and Libraries Division

U.S. General Accounting Office


Senate bill aims to restrict commercialism in schools

Schools would have to ask for parents’ permission before any student information could be collected and used for commercial purposes, and they’d have to develop and adopt a policy with parents concerning in-school commercial activities, under a bipartisan bill introduced into the Senate Feb. 8.

The bill, called the Student Privacy Protection Act and sponsored by Sens. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., and Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., aims to involve and inform parents about commercialism in schools.

According to a September 2000 report by the General Accounting Office (GAO), tight budgets have forced many schools to seek alternative revenue sources to pay for new technology or sponsor student activities. As a result, schools are permitting their classrooms to be used for marketing, the GAO report found.

“More and more, schools are being perceived not just as centers for learning, but centers for consumer research,” said Dodd, who added that the bill stemmed from the GAO’s investigation. “Our children should be instilled with knowledge, not tapped for information on their spending habits.”

From ads on the sides of buses or internet browsers, to soft-drink sponsorships, to student surveys, commercialism is becoming increasingly prevalent in schools.

“Many schools enter into commercial contracts with advertisers because, as the GAO found, they are strapped for cash,” Dodd said. “Schools often are faced with two poor choices—provide computers, books, and other educational … equipment with commercial advertising, or not at all.”

Channel One, the most often cited example, offers schools free equipment and a daily news program in exchange for showing television ads to students. Thirty-eight percent of U.S. middle and high schools are connected to Channel One, the GAO report found.

ZapMe!, which is now rStar Networks, gave schools up to 15 computers with 17-inch monitors, internet access, and a printer in exchange for continuously displaying ads on their computer screens. Though rStar Networks continues to support ZapMe!-installed machines, the company does not offer new contracts to schools, and schools that originally signed up for the service now have to pay for the equipment.

The new bill wouldn’t outlaw these types of practices; instead, it would make sure parents are aware of them and are part of the decision-making process. According to the GAO report, not all districts disclose the details of these agreements to parents, and many parents aren’t aware these kinds of activities are going on.

“This bill would return to parents the right to protect their children’s privacy,” Dodd said.

“It does not ban advertising, nor does it ban market research. It simply requires that, before a researcher can start asking a young student to provide personal information, that researcher must obtain parental consent or its equivalent.”

Schools would have to explain to parents who will collect such information, how it will be used, and how much class time the process will consume.

A similar law, called the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), has been in effect since April 2000. COPPA requires web sites that collect personal information from children ages 12 and under to get parents’ permission first. The Student Privacy Protection Act would go a step further and apply to any collection of information for marketing purposes at any K-12 school.

Also, the bill would force schools to develop commercialism policies in consultation with parents. All parents must be informed of the school’s commercialism policy, as well as any changes or exceptions that alter that policy.

“I do not personally see the harm in letting parents know what’s in the schools,” said Lori Cole, executive director of the Eagle Forum, a pro-family, grassroots organization. “I think the more we get parental involvement in schools, the better.”


Sen. Christopher Dodd

Sen. Richard Shelby

The Eagle Forum

Channel One

rStar Networks


KnowledgeBox content server

KnowledgeBox, from Pearson Broadband, is a web appliance that features pre-loaded multimedia content from Pearson’s Learning Network for K-6 schools.

The KnowledgeBox content server contains hundreds of standards-based, ready-to-use interactive lessons enhanced with video, animations, and thousands of additional interactive media resources. Teachers and students can access these resources through the school’s own network, rather than relying on the quality of the internet connection to deliver the content.

The KnowledgeBox content is continually growing, as it is derived from Pearson Broadband’s collection of more than 7,000 video clips, 1,500 software animations, and thousands of documents and activity pages. The content resources are crafted into standards-based lessons, but teachers also can create their own custom lessons. Next year, Pearson Broadband says it will offer a “peer network,” so teachers and students can share lessons and projects with each other.

A subscription to KnowledgeBox costs $18,000 for each school building annually.

(888) 977-7900


PeopleSoft 8 Budget Planning software

PeopleSoft developed its PeopleSoft 8 Budget Planning for Education and Government software so school districts and government agencies could streamline their preparation of budgets, control spending, and manage their reporting processes. The software is equipped with wide-ranging financial forecasting and budget modeling tools to help school systems with their planning and strategic decision-making.

Since it is browser-based, PeopleSoft Budget Planning lets you prepare comprehensive budgets anytime, anywhere using Microsoft Internet Explorer. The software lets you analyze and manipulate the budget any way you want, providing budgeting capability by line item, positions, budget centers, and budget categories. It also integrates with human resources and financial systems.

PeopleSoft Budget Planning is a one-time purchase, and the price is based on the size of the school system. School districts also can negotiate for maintenance and training.

(888) 773-8277


Securexam desktop security software

Securexam, from Software Secure Inc. of Brookline, Mass., enables students to take exams with a desktop or laptop computer instead of pencil and paper.

The software prevents cheating on exams administered via computer by locking out access to files and programs on the computer, except basic Microsoft Word features. Once the exam is completed, Securexam encrypts students’ answers to prevent them from being accessed or altered. The encryption prevents students from re-entering an exam, except in the event of a system failure or crash. Teachers or test markers can decrypt student answers and get help with the grading process through Securexam’s Grader feature.

Software Secure says its software uses three proprietary security systems that have undergone rigorous scrutiny and are subjected to tests by a panel of computer experts regularly. In the unlikely event that a student cracks the Lock System and attempts to access other information, Securexam’s Alarm System captures and stores pictures of every screen that is viewed and notifies test administrators of any attempted breaches.

(800) 985-8868


It can happen here

Schools are still the safest place for kids to be, but it didn’t much seem that way during the most recent rash of school violence and threats of violence that began with the tragic slaying of two students in Santa Anna High School in Santee, Calif.

In the single week following the Santee shootings, incidents involving students and guns were reported from coast to coast. Three incidents took place in Pennsylvania, including at a parochial school where a 14-year-old girl was charged with attempted homicide after allegedly shooting a classmate in the shoulder. There were 16 incidents in California in addition to Santee, two incidents in Georgia, one in Iowa, two in Florida, one each in Washington state and Wisconsin, three in Arizona, and one in New Jersey.

This was during just one week.

Yet according to a joint report from the U.S. Justice Department and Department of Education (ED), only 1 percent of child homicides take place in or near schools. The number of school deaths has declined since the 1992-93 school year, it was reported. Since 1993, the number of arrests per 100,000 children ages 10 to 17 for violent crimes has declined 20 percent.

Technology plays a role on both sides of issue. On the dark side, at least two web sites present memorial tributes to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the students who killed at Columbine High School. One site urges visitors to support the “Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold ribbon campaign.” It idolizes them as “our fallen heroes” willing to risk their own lives “for the sake of proving a point.”

On the positive side, schools are experimenting with tech-based remedies. Public schools in Newark, N.J., for instance, are installing a network of cameras to monitor corridors, stairwells, cafeterias, and gyms. The district plans to eventually wire all its high schools to a secure internet site. Other districts are using smart cards and similar devices to control access to schools and classrooms. But no responsible observer contends technology is a panacea.

Human intervention still is key. Many schools are bringing in specially trained police officers. ED has earmarked some $500 million for anti-violence programs in schools, ranging from conflict-resolution training to programs encouraging students to report potential danger.

Some proposed solutions are simply chilling. Following the killings in Santee, Texas state Rep. Suzanna Gratia Hupp (R) has introduced legislation to let school principals and superintendents carry guns at rural schools. The bill would apply only to officials with “concealed-handgun” licenses in counties with fewer than 20,000 people. School officials not already licensed would have to undergo training and tests of their proficiency in the handling of a gun and in conflict resolution. Background checks also would be conducted. Safety and school experts say urban districts with their metal detectors, security cameras, and police officers are more prepared to prevent in-school violence, because those districts have been dealing with it for decades.

While urban school systems have been making progress, the reaction to gun violence among suburban and rural districts has lagged, said Bernard James, legal counsel for the National School Safety Center, based in Westlake Village, Calif.

Joanne McDaniel, acting director of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence in Raleigh, N.C., said some suburban and rural districts continue to cling to an outdated mentality: “It can’t happen here.”

Security cameras and metal detectors are insufficient, according to Curt Lavarello, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers in Boynton Beach, Fla.

“We can bring in all the metal detectors and cameras in the world,” Lavarello said. “We can do that endlessly and not even make a dent without addressing the real need. …We have to create an environment where children feel they can come to adults.”

In Santee, friends of the suspect, Charles Andrew “Andy” Williams, have said the youth told them he planned to open fire inside Santana High School. But, they said, they thought he was joking and didn’t alert police.

Local school leaders should determine what will work best in their specific circumstances. We should avoid extremes like the “pistol-packing principals” idea. But sadly, it’s well past time to acknowledge that, wherever we are, “It can happen here.” And we must act accordingly.