Editor’s note: Matthew Szulik is the president and chief executive officer of Red Hat Inc., a leading provider of the Linux operating system and other open-source solutions. What follows are Szulik’s closing remarks at the LinuxWorld Conference and Exposition in San Francisco August 30.

Good morning. I’m very proud to be with you today, because today for the first time I have the opportunity to thank the members of the open-source community directlyfor your hard work, your commitment to the promise of open source, and your conscience in the technology community.

Guard this conscience closely. In an economy now declining, open source has never been more relevant. A new generation is discovering the unprecedented rate of innovation that open source provides. But with this growth comes the rise of proprietary interests to challenge it.

I don’t want to overstate. This is not war. People are not dying for the cause. Proprietary software is causing no grave social injustice.

But it is holding us back. It is restricting our society and those around the world, keeping them from the progress that comes only when knowledge and ideas are freely exchanged. And like freedom of speech and pressthe mark of evolved societiesopen source is worth fighting for.

We must fight for it together. Until now, the struggle for open-source software has been fought in IT departments and in the court of public opinion. Soon it will be fought on congressional floors. And in our schools.

I’m here today to challenge the open-source community. To ask you to join together to promote open source in our schools, and to protect open source in our government.

Right now the Philadelphia public school system is being tortured by Microsoft. They are being forced to audit all the computers in their 264 schoolsall because Microsoft received an anonymous tip that a teacher had illegally copied a Microsoft application onto a school computer. Now the school system must prove they have valid licenses for every application on every computer.

Had they chosen open-source software, my company and others would have encouraged them to make as many free copies as they needed, saving millions of dollars and hundreds of hours of inventory work.

This incident is only the latest evidence of an ongoing crisis in computer training in our schools. Money is determining whether or not childrenespecially those in poor or minority schoolsare allowed to participate in an information-based society.

Despite all the computer equipment and software donated over the past 20 years, students are still advancing through the grades and graduating with inadequate computer skillsskills that will be the foundation for our economy’s success in the decades to come. As these skills grow more complex and school budgets shrink, this will only worsen.

I believe the problem is that technology companies, particularly those that create and sell proprietary software, approach our schools as a marketplace, not as a responsibility.

The good news is that well-meaning legislators intent on bridging the digital divide are now focusing more money on school technology programs. K-12 technology spending is expected to reach nearly $9 billion in the coming school year.

Unfortunately, when this money goes toward proprietary technology, it effectively locks in the school the same way proprietary technology locks in private organizations. It forces educators to look to that company for upgrades, support, and security fixes. They can’t improve the software, nor learn from its code.

Let me be clear: By extending their lock on the educational system, proprietary software vendors have restricted choice, institutionalized inefficiency, and imposed artificially high pricesoften disguised as discounts. Your taxes are paying for the pricing practices of a proprietary monopoly.

And it’s swallowing school budgets whole. For many schools, there isn’t much of a budget to begin with. In the U.S. public school system, the average technology budget is $104 per student. In my home state of North Carolina, where the state wrestles with an $800 million budget deficit, that amount is $16which is barely enough to buy you one quarter of a Windows license upgrade.

North Carolina is not alone in its budgetary problems:

• Ohio has a $850 million deficit over the next two years.

• Alabama had to cut $300 million from its education budget.

• California will be forced to use its budget surplus in education.

• New Jersey, by law, must spend first in poorest school districts. That’s an admirable approach, but it requires $1.3 million in additional spending in a state already facing a $1 billion deficit.

In fact, nearly 20 states have reported that they won’t meet their projected revenue collections this year.

The collapse of the stock market has crippled state budgets. Combine this with school crowding, especially in K-12 schools, and flat teacher salariesin many cases teacher shortagesand we’re facing an epidemic.

Deficits, spending cuts, tight budgetsit’s clear we need to make a major change in how we fund public technical education. And that starts with changing how schools spend their computing budgets.

It’s time to open up our schools to the benefits of open-source software. The proof can be seen in countries around the world where this is already happening:

In Mexico, the government’s Scholar Net program is working toward creating 140,000 school computer labs. These computers will run on Linux. They estimate that software for each lab would cost $885 if equipped with proprietary Windows, but only $50 with Linux.

In South Africa, the Zingasa Comprehensive School, located in an impoverished part of the country, has created a computer learning center with old 386-based computers running Linux. Unlike Windows, Linux runs very well on older systems. Now every student in the high school takes a computer learning course. Linux is also playing a role as South Africa moves to network 28,000 schools across the country.

In France, led by the French Minister of Education, 350 primary and secondary schools in the Grenoble academic district are accessing the internet through inexpensive Linux servers.

And in the United States, we’re already seeing schools testing and using open-source software as a way to save money and take control of their technology.

Haywood County Schools is a 15-school rural district in western North Carolina. As a result of the Y2K transition, Michael Williams and the Haywood County Schools replaced their aging proprietary Novell servers with Linux. Currently the school uses open-source software to run their firewall, file and print services, and their student information systems.

With the money saved not buying proprietary licenses, the school purchased much-needed additional servers instead.

I also want to recognize groups such as the K12 Linux Terminal Server Project (or K12-LTSP), the Linux in Schools project, and SEUL-edu (Simple End User Linux). These volunteer organizations are working hard to stretch education dollars with open-source software.

K12-LTSP has recently released ready-to-run Linux server software designed for schools. It is available at no cost and installs in about 20 minutes.

One of the originators of the project was an educator named Paul Nelson, who has put the software to work in his own Riverdale School District in Portland, Oregon.

Nelson estimates that a typical lab installation of Windows 98 for 20 workstations would cost $20,000, including hardware, while a thin-client installation of K12-LTSP would cost only $6,000.

Linux has been at work in the Riverdale computing infrastructure for five years. Two years ago, they began using it as a desktop operating system in a fifth-grade class.

Some argue there is a lack of learning software for Linux. But many adults use computers in the same manner as Riverdale’s fifth gradersto access the internet and send eMail. They use it to research, create, and to analyze and present what they have learned. The web is the ultimate education tool.

This is great work. However, volunteer groups like K12-LTSP lack the resources to overcome the marketing machinery of the large software vendors. So I ask you to seek ways you can make a difference in local schools, and especially those schools in impoverished inner-city districts, because this is the work force of tomorrow’s economy. These are the individuals we should look to in order to fill the estimated one million empty technology jobs in this country.

I would like to propose the creation of an Open Source Education Corp. modeled after the Civilian Corps of Engineers. Here, public educators and local school boards can work together to improve the quality of local technical education, bypassing proprietary, high-cost vendors. I envision four goals for this organization:

1. Open up the spending process to welcome open-source software. Most educational computing proposals are skewed toward proprietary vendors. Many actually specify Windows software or Windows compatibility. This excludes open-source software from the bidding process before it can demonstrate its substantial cost savings.

2. Target the neediest schools. These schools benefit because they are not already locked in by restrictive, proprietary software licenses.

3. Create an open-source hardware exchange. Few realize that proprietary software licenses are tied to the computer. If you donate an old PC with Windows, the school must then pay a licensing fee to Microsoft. Unless the original printed license is donated with the computer, Microsoft can get paid two or more times for the same software on one computer. But if the school strips Windows off the PC and loads Linux, they give new life to an old computer and pay nothing.

4. Create and share educational applications. By freely sharing innovations, participants in the program could create new applications, instantly distributing them through the internet, free of charge. This will greatly reduce spending on proprietary applications while enabling students to be innovative and creative.