Researcher: Allow online votes in school board elections

Allowing people to vote over the internet could draw millions more Americans to the polls, according to a University of Arizona study. The lead researcher recommends that states begin testing this theory by allowing online elections for local school board positions.

In the study, Robert Done, an assistant research professor of management and policy at the Eller College of Business and Public Administration, highlights the results of the Arizona Democratic Party’s 2000 presidential primary, which used internet voting in a binding election for public office for the first time.

Voter turnout in the primary was more than double the previous record, and about 40 percent of the 86,000 ballots were cast online.

“It worked out pretty well,” Done said. “If those results can be generalized to the rest of the country, there would be a dramatic increase in voter participation.”

“Convenience probably was the biggest factor in this,” he said. “It can be done from home or anywhere, really, where there’s internet access.”

The primary election survived a legal challenge by a Virginia-based group called the Voting Integrity Project, which claimed low-income minority members would be harmed by internet voting because they have less access to computers.

The Voting Integrity Project also questioned system security and how a person voting online could prove his or her identity.

Officials with the Voting Integrity Project could not be reached for comment. The group’s telephone number was disconnected and its internet address now hosts a web browser.

Done said the group raised crucial issues that must be addressed if internet voting is to succeed on a larger scale.

“I agree with the significance of all those issues,” he said. “This is a change in our process that is going to need a lot of perfecting.”

But Done said Arizona’s results from internet voting were much better than Florida’s experience with punch card ballots, which held up the 2000 presidential election amid claims of mistaken votes, hanging chads, and other problems.

“If done properly, voters can have every confidence in it that their votes count, compared to a punch card, where a chad might fall out, invalidating their vote,” Done said.

Former Arizona Democratic Party Chairman Mark Fleisher, who launched the internet primary, said that election showed what is possible.

“What I see as the shining star in this was it engages and excites young people,” Fleisher said. “There’s no doubt internet voting is coming. The door has been opened.”

As part of his study, “Internet Voting: Bringing Elections to the Desktop,” Done also surveyed 495 voting age Arizonans in spring 2001.

The survey found that 62 percent of the unregistered respondents would register to vote if they could use the internet, and 42 percent said they would vote online, mirroring the results of the Arizona Democratic primary.

The survey had a margin for error of 2 percentage points.

If those responses became reality, 90 percent of eligible Americans would be registered to vote and 71 percent would cast ballots, according to the report. If just half of the country’s unregistered voters signed up, it would create 25 million potential new voters, the report said.

Done recommends that states experiment with internet voting in city council and school board elections, promote research on internet transaction security, and encourage social scientists to study the effects of internet voting on participation and the democratic process.

“The report comes at a time when recommendations for improving the voting process are being examined, and eGovernment is transforming citizen interaction with government,” said Grady Means, managing partner for PricewaterhouseCoopers, which provided a $15,000 grant for the study. “We believe this research will contribute to the debate and help improve the processes of democracy.”

Educators who spoke with eSchool News agreed that holding school board elections online would increase voter participation. But they cited the same concerns—access, security, and validity—expressed by the Voting Integrity Project.

“I think online voting is a great idea,” said John D. Roman, director of technology at Indian Oasis Baboquivari School District in Sells, Ariz. “For our school district, the biggest problem would be that we are very rural, and most of the voters do not have access to a computer.”

“It’s a great idea, and one that may get more people involved in the voting process,” agreed Charlie Reisinger, director of technology for Pennsylvania’s Penn Manor School District. “But the old phrase ‘nobody on the internet knows you are a dog’ really makes sense for online voting. It’s very hard to verify absolutely that the voter is, indeed, who she says she is.”

Cost also is an issue, said Dennis Dempsey, superintendent of Crook Deschutes Education Service District in Redmond, Ore.

“I would love to test this concept in my own district,” Dempsey said, “if I did not have to also pay for the cost of a ballot election at the same time.”

Links:

University of Arizona
http://www.arizona.edu

PricewaterhouseCoopers
http://www.pwcglobal.com

“Internet Voting: Bringing Elections to the Desktop” (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader)
http://endowment.pwcglobal.com/pdfs/Done_Report.pdf

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High court overturns ban on ‘virtual’ child porn

The government went too far in trying to ban computer simulations and other fool-the-eye depictions of teen-agers or children having sex, the Supreme Court ruled April 16. Many opponents of the ruling claim it will put schoolchildren at greater risk from pedophiles.

Youthful sexuality is a venerable theme in art, from Shakespeare to Academy Award-winning movies, the court found in striking down key provisions of a 1996 child pornography law on free-speech grounds.

The law would call into question legitimate educational, scientific, or artistic depictions of youthful sex, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for a 6-3 majority.

“The statute proscribes the visual depiction of an idea—that of teen-agers engaging in sexual activity—that is a fact of modern society and has been a theme in art and literature throughout the ages,” Kennedy wrote in a decision joined by four other justices. Clarence Thomas, one of the court’s most conservative justices, wrote a separate opinion agreeing with the outcome.

The court invalidated two provisions of the Child Pornography Prevention Act as overly broad and unconstitutional. Free-speech advocates and pornographers had challenged the law’s ban on material that “appears to be” a child in a sexually explicit situation or that is advertised to convey the impression that someone under 18 is involved.

Attorney General John Ashcroft said the ruling makes prosecution of child pornographers “immeasurably more difficult.” He offered to work with Congress on new legislation that could withstand the court’s scrutiny.

It is not clear how many people have been prosecuted under the stricken provisions, nor what might become of convictions. Ashcroft said prosecutors will retool some indictments to rely on obscenity laws unaffected by the high court’s ruling.

Another section of the 1996 law was not challenged, and remains in force. It bans prurient computer alteration of innocent images of children, such as the grafting of a child’s school picture onto a naked body.

Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen G. Breyer signed Kennedy’s opinion. Thomas, in a separate concurring opinion, said the court’s ruling appropriately strikes down a ban that was too sweeping but leaves a window for future regulation of some kinds of virtual child pornography.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor partially agreed with the majority and partially disagreed. The law is indeed too broad, but a portion of it could be salvaged, O’Connor wrote.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia dissented, arguing that the law need not be read to ban the kind of artistic material that concerned Kennedy.

“The aim of ensuring the enforceability of our nation’s child pornography laws is a compelling one,” Rehnquist wrote for the pair. “The [law] is targeted to this aim by extending the definition of child pornography to reach computer-generated images that are virtually indistinguishable from real children engaged in sexually explicit conduct.”

Conservatives outside the court were outraged.

“That the Supreme Court of the United States can entertain the notion that virtual images of children being sexually violated has ‘value’ that needs protection is an abomination,” said Jan LaRue, legal studies director at the Family Research Council.

“The high court sided with pedophiles over children,” said Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., co-chair of a congressional caucus on missing and exploited children. “This decision has set back years of work on behalf of the most innocent of Americans.”

Congress passed the law as a bulwark against then-emerging computer technology that allowed pornographers to simulate child sex without using actual children.

The law was intended primarily to stop pornography produced through computer wizardry not available when the court placed child pornography outside First Amendment protection in 1982.

But moviemakers and other artists complained that the law also swept up scenes such as those in works Kennedy named, where youthful sex is pantomimed or is filmed using adults disguised as children.

“Teen-age sexual activity and the sexual abuse of children have inspired countless literary works. William Shakespeare created the most famous pair of teen-age lovers, one of whom is just 13,” Kennedy wrote, referring to “Romeo and Juliet.”

“In the drama, Shakespeare portrays the relationship as something splendid and innocent,” yet modern staging of the play could run afoul of the anti-child pornography law, Kennedy suggested.

In Hollywood, the Directors Guild of America praised the decision. “From ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to ‘American Beauty’ and ‘Traffic,’ artists have told stories that included allusions of adolescent sexuality, stories which have enriched our lives,” said DGA president Martha Coolidge.

Coolidge, whose films include the teen comedies “Valley Girl” and “Real Genius,” said, “Every American would suffer the loss of freedom if this overzealous governmental intrusion into our rights of expression had been allowed to stand.”

The case is Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, 00-795.

Links:

U.S. Supreme Court
http://www.supremecourtus.gov

Family Research Council
http://www.frc.org

Directors Guild of America
http://www.dga.org

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House committee OKs creation of web domain for kids

A bill that aims to create a special internet domain for children’s web sites passed a House committee April 10, but only after lawmakers added more stringent rules for the kinds of sites that would qualify.

Lawmakers pitched the bill as another way to protect children from accessing inappropriate material online, but some educators question how effective such a measure would be.

The bill, called the Dot Kids Implementation and Efficiency Act of 2002 (H.R. 3833), aims to develop a second-level internet domain within the United States country code that would offer material geared toward children, while shielding them from harmful material on the internet.

The new internet domain would mean children’s web site addresses would end in “.kids.us.” A group such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, for example, would change its web address from http://www.bgca.org to http://www.bgca.kids.us.

Web sites using this domain would become a “green-light area” for kids on the internet, like the children’s section of a library. Dot-kids web sites would contain only content appropriate for children under 13.

The bill, which has about a dozen co-sponsors, requires content standards to be established for dot-kids web sites. It also requires a written agreement from each web site operator that ensures its web site meets the dot-kids content standards, procedures for enforcing compliance, a process for removing web sites that conflict with the rules, and a process so web site operators can resolve disputes impartially.

NeuStar Inc., which has a contract with the Commerce Department to administer top-level internet domain names, would manage the dot-kids domain.

The bill’s most recent amendments add measures to prevent children from being targeted or exploited online. The amendments ban chat rooms, eMail services, and hyperlinks that take users away from dot-kids web sites.

“The whole purpose of dot-kids is to create a safe place on the internet for children, specifically young children,” said Steve Tomaszewski, press secretary for Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., who introduced the bill March 4 along with Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich.

“Dot-kids sites would naturally have young users,” Tomaszewski said. “By banning the chat rooms and eMail, you are taking away the ability for people to prey upon young users.”

“The major problem with this approach is that a dot-kids domain will rapidly become dot-Kids-R-Us,” said Nancy Willard, director of the Responsible Netizen Project of the University of Oregon’s Center for Advanced Technology in Education.

Companies marketing to children “use the same techniques as sexual predators,” she said. “They establish relationships with children for the purpose of convincing [them] to engage in specific behavior. Far too many parents will think that this location is a ‘safe’ location for their children, not recognizing what the companies are doing.”

Anyone—including educational institutions, government agencies, companies, or private citizens—would be able to register a dot-kids web site, as long as they meet the bill’s requirements. “You can’t prohibit anyone from having a dot-kids site, as long as their material is suitable for children,” said Tomaszewski.

From a school perspective, Willard said the bill doesn’t facilitate access to high-quality educational resources: “What we desperately need is a vehicle to establish a safe environment for children to access good-quality educational sites that are not seeking to promote products.”

Sandra Becker, director of technology for the Governor Mifflin School District in Pennsylvania, said parents would welcome internet space devoted to younger learners, but she doesn’t think the bill would be effective at protecting children from harmful internet content.

“I would not assume it was pure. Links can be added to sites or possibly disguised. I still would run my content filter,” Becker said.

Bob Moore, executive director of IT services for the Blue Valley School District in Kansas, said he doesn’t think a dot-kids domain is a practical solution to protecting students when online.

“I suppose it would be effective if kids are truly locked out of other domains, but I see that as unworkable in schools,” Moore said. “Our kids use resources in .com, .edu, .net., .org, and other [domains]. Are all of those content providers going to make their content available for ‘.kids’?”

Lawmakers have tried other legislative means to protect children online, including the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which mandates the use of internet filtering technology in schools and libraries that receive federal funding, and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which requires web sites to get parental permission before collecting any personal information from children under 13.

Last year, lawmakers wanted the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)—which is responsible for making top-level domain decisions—to create a top-level domain “.kids,” similar to .com or .org.

But Japan, China, and some European countries were opposed to the idea of the United States making the rules for the internet, so lawmakers opted to create a dot-kids domain within the United States country code instead.

Links:

House Energy Commerce Committee
http://energycommerce.house.gov

Dot Kids Implementation and Efficiency Act of 2002
http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c107:H.R.3833

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich.
http://www.house.gov/upton

Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill.
http://www.house.gov/shimkus

Neustar Inc.
http://www.neustar.com/

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School system helps promote filtering device—for TV

A Tennessee school system has earned $7,000 for helping to promote a new technology designed to block offensive language from television programming.

In an agreement with Global Cable Inc. of Trenton, Ga., the Hamilton County Schools received 2,800 of the company’s ProtecTV devices to connect to classroom televisions. In return, school officials encouraged thousands of students to take fliers home to their parents advertising the product.

The school system also received $33 for each ProtectTV box sold during a two-month sales promotion that started in January.

The new electronic device—a hand-sized box selling for $79.95—selectively mutes words and phrases that television viewers might consider objectionable.

Besides blocking the obvious lexicon of four-letter curse words, the device mutes or edits from closed-captioning scripts words such as stupid, moron, cocaine, horny, intercourse, hell, and shut up.

Every time a word is spoken, it is compared to a dictionary of more than 400 offensive words and phrases. If the word matches, it is deleted from the soundtrack and captioning. The viewer will experience a momentary gap in the audio, and for viewers reading the captions the undesirable written word is replaced by XXXXs.

The boxes can be connected to a television, VCR, cable box, DVD player, or satellite TV system.

Global Cable Vice President Allan Ward said the company purchased worldwide rights to manufacture and sell ProtecTV last year after he saw it demonstrated at a cable product show in Toronto.

Diane LaPierre, a former forklift operator from Calgary, Alberta, developed and patented the technology after trying to use closed captioning to help teach her son to read.

Ward said he and Global Cable owner Jim Gee talked to a few people about using the technology to create ProtecTV “and everyone saw the value.”

“If you have ever sat down with one of your kids and watched an evening television show, a lot of times you end up answering a lot of questions that you don’t want to answer,” Ward said. “I have nothing against prime-time television, but it’s not for children.”

Ward and Gee approached Hamilton County school board member Marty Puryear about test-marketing the product through an agreement with the Chattanooga-area schools.

“It just seemed like something that would work. You are helping public education, and it gives you a chance to test market your product,” Puryear said.

The school board agreed. Ward sold about 225 devices. One satisfied customer was parent Rebekah Renfrow, who said her breaking point came when she watched an episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond” with her four young children and heard a certain derogatory reference to women that made her cringe.

“I don’t want to be overprotective, but there is no need to have it coming in my house,” Renfrow said. “I really don’t want my kids hearing that kind of language.”

The Hamilton County school system actively promotes character education, district officials said, and ProtecTV helps reinforce the program’s goals.

“Most of the [television] programs that [teachers] show won’t have any bad language in them, but occasionally there will be a video that isn’t rated and profanity or nasty words will show up,” said Charles Joynes, principal of Clifton Hills Elementary. “I think it’s a wonderful tool. It shows students that we are serious, that we don’t want that language used.”

Besides supporting the district’s character-building initiatives, Joynes said, the ProtecTV devices will help shield the district from liability for unintentionally exposing students to objectionable language.

The technology “alleviates any problems we could have with parents if a kid goes home and says, ‘Guess what I heard today at school,'” Joynes said. “You could just imagine the problems we could have.”

Peter Magmuson, a spokesman for the National Association of Elementary School Principals, said he thought the ProtecTV devices would have more of a use at home than at school.

“Principals would be interested to know that the technology is out there, if nothing else, but to let parents know it’s available,” Magmuson said. He added: “We would hope that anything shown over the TV [in school] is previewed before it is shown.”

Links:

Hamilton County Schools
http://www.hcde.org

Global Cable Inc.
http://www.ProtecTV.com

National Association of Elementary School Principals
http://www.naesp.org

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Microsoft issues patch for 10 new web-security flaws

Schools using certain versions of Microsoft’s web server software are encouraged to download a patch the company issued April 10 to fix ten newly discovered security flaws, the most serious of which could let a hacker take over web servers running the software in question.

The flaws affect the last three versions of Microsoft’s Internet Information Server and Internet Information Services software, which are run on millions of computers worldwide. Weaknesses in the same Microsoft software allowed the Code Red and Nimda worms to spread across the internet last year.

The most serious of the recently discovered flaws would allow a hacker to shut down, deface, or plant malicious programs on a school district’s or company’s web site. It was discovered by an engineer at eEye Digital Security.

Security guru Marc Maiffret, who calls himself eEye’s chief hacking officer, said more weaknesses have been discovered in Microsoft’s IIS Web server software than in the software of some of its competitors, which could “make it a little bit scarier running IIS.”

But most enterprises—including eEye, which uses IIS—think the software’s rich feature offerings outweigh the risk, he said, as long as they have a strong security product protecting it.

The latest flaws were discovered as Microsoft undergoes an intensive companywide campaign to stamp out security problems, an effort ordered by its chairman and chief software architect, Bill Gates.

Gates’ plan, called “Trustworthy Computing,” follows a series of embarrassing security flaws, including a critical problem that surfaced soon after the company released its latest version of Windows, called Windows XP. Microsoft released a patch in December to fix the flaw, which could allow hackers to steal or destroy a victim’s data files without the user doing anything more than connecting to the internet.

Lynn Terwoerds, a security program manager at Microsoft Security Response Center, said the company has worked hard to improve the way it deals with security problems, setting more secure default standards in its software and more aggressively informing users of security flaws and patches.

“Security is an industrywide issue,” she said. “I understand that there is a lot of focus on us, but when you take a look at the past year there’s also been an evolution in terms of what we do.”

Microsoft’s critics had contended that the software giant had been ignoring security weaknesses for far too long.

Since Gates announced his plan in January, Microsoft has asked nearly all of its employees to undergo added security training. Developers have pored over countless lines of code in search of flaws. But Terwoerds said the latest flaws would likely have been discovered with or without the Trustworthy Computing initiative.

Links:

Microsoft Security
http://www.microsoft.com/security

eEye Digital Security
http://www.eeye.com

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ZZZMicrosoft issues patch for 10 new web-security flaws

Schools using certain versions of web server software are encouraged to download a patch the company issued April 10 to fix ten newly discovered security flaws, the most serious of which could let a hacker take over web servers running the software in question.

The flaws affect the last three versions of Microsoft’s Internet Information Server and Internet Information Services software, which are run on millions of computers worldwide. Weaknesses in the same Microsoft software allowed the Code Red and Nimda worms to spread across the internet last year.

The most serious of the recently discovered flaws would allow a hacker to shut down, deface, or plant malicious programs on a school district’s or company’s web site. It was discovered by an engineer at eEye Digital Security.

Security guru Marc Maiffret, who calls himself eEye’s chief hacking officer, said more weaknesses have been discovered in Microsoft’s IIS Web server software than in the software of some of its competitors, which could “make it a little bit scarier running IIS.”

But most enterprises—including eEye, which uses IIS—think the software’s rich feature offerings outweigh the risk, he said, as long as they have a strong security product protecting it.

The latest flaws were discovered as Microsoft undergoes an intensive companywide campaign to stamp out security problems, an effort ordered by its chairman and chief software architect, Bill Gates.

Gates’ plan, called “Trustworthy Computing,” follows a series of embarrassing security flaws, including a critical problem that surfaced soon after the company released its latest version of Windows, called Windows XP. Microsoft released a patch in December to fix the flaw, which could allow hackers to steal or destroy a victim’s data files without the user doing anything more than connecting to the internet.

Lynn Terwoerds, a security program manager at Microsoft Security Response Center, said the company has worked hard to improve the way it deals with security problems, setting more secure default standards in its software and more aggressively informing users of security flaws and patches.

“Security is an industrywide issue,” she said. “I understand that there is a lot of focus on us, but when you take a look at the past year there’s also been an evolution in terms of what we do.”

Microsoft’s critics had contended that the software giant had been ignoring security weaknesses for far too long.

Since Gates announced his plan in January, Microsoft has asked nearly all of its employees to undergo added security training. Developers have pored over countless lines of code in search of flaws. But Terwoerds said the latest flaws would likely have been discovered with or without the Trustworthy Computing initiative.

Links:

Microsoft Security
http://www.microsoft.com/security

eEye Digital Security
http://www.eeye.com

tags

New web site reveals states’ school funding data

School leaders, national and state policy makers, and other education stakeholders now can tap into a new online, interactive database to find out how the nation spends the estimated $350 billion earmarked each year for education.

The Education Finance Database, produced by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), is a free web resource that allows users to learn about and compare each state’s educational finance system.

Although the site is intended to be used by legislators, legislative staff, and other researchers, school officials also can access the information contained within the database to learn how their own states or other states and school systems operate.

“Legislators and legislative staff want to know what options are available when considering education finance policies,” said NCSL Education Policy Specialist Steve Smith. “Our goal was to provide the information in an easy-to-understand format.”

Using the web-based database, school officials can answer questions such as: How many states collect local sales taxes for education purposes? Which states fund education with lottery revenues? How many states had school finance litigation last year? Which states spent the most on school technology?

According to Smith, the main function of the database is to explain the different revenue structures and distribution systems that exist across the country.

“K-12 education is a $350 billion industry,” Smith said. “There’s just not a lot of people [who] know how it works.”

For each state, the database offers information about local taxing methods, tax and spending limits, tax credits and exemptions, earmarked state revenue, foundation program information, recent school finance litigation, and more.

Visitors also can compare spending on individual issues—such as special education or technology—across all states.

The database currently contains information for the 2001-02 school year only, but this summer NCSL staff members plan to add data for 2002-03 as well, Smith said. The group also hopes to feature more quantitative data beyond just per-pupil spending. “That’s the beauty of the web. It’ll forever expand,” he said.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) regularly produces reports on education finance, but these reports often are out of date when they are released and difficult to search through. Last year, NCES issued PDF files for each state, but you still couldn’t compare the data and it was still too old, Smith said. NCSL’s online database automates the process.

The web site is available in two different formats to accommodate slower internet connections. The Flash version is more dynamic and allows for more advanced queries. It features an interactive map of the United States, and when you scroll across the different states on the map, it shows their per-pupil spending and enrollment figures.

For queries, when you scroll over the different terms used in your search—such as local sales tax or lottery revenues—the map lights up accordingly. For instance, if 14 states use lottery revenues to fund education, when you scroll over the words “lottery revenue,” those 14 states would appear highlighted.

You can also click on each highlighted state to read the details of its rules concerning the search term. Smith said NCSL plans to add contact information for each state so users can call to have more specific questions answered.

All 50 state legislatures belong to NCSL, which is an information clearinghouse organization.

Links:

National Conference of State Legislatures: Education Finance Database http://www.ncsl.org/programs/educ/ed_finance/intro.htm

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Schools weigh in on proposed eRate changes

Schools and libraries that apply for federal eRate discounts should be able to choose how their funding will be disbursed, and any unused or unclaimed funds should be carried over to the next funding year, according to school leaders and education groups who filed comments with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) earlier this year.

In reviewing the eRate’s rules, the FCC had asked members of the public for their feedback on several proposals by the agency to improve the program, as well as their own ideas for how to make the program simpler and more efficient.

The eRate provides up to $2.25 billion in discounts on telecommunications service and internet access to the nation’s schools and libraries each year, but many applicants have chafed under its strict rules and complicated paperwork.

Besides streamlining the program, the FCC would like to reduce the occurrence of fraud, waste, and abuse. The agency also wants to ensure that funding is distributed fairly to those applicants who need it the most. During the last three program years, requests for discounts have exceeded the amount of funding that is available.

The deadline for submitting comments was April 5. The FCC received nearly 120 responses in all, and a sampling of comments posted to the agency’s web site reveals that respondents overwhelmingly agreed on the following suggestions:

1. Applicants should be able to choose for themselves how they will receive eRate discounts—either by paying for services in full and then seeking reimbursement, or by paying only those portions of the charges not eligible for discounts when service begins.

Current program rules leave this detail to be worked out between applicants and their service providers. But because funding is disbursed directly to service providers, and not applicants, the potential exists for service providers to require applicants to pay for services in full and then seek reimbursement.

Requiring service providers to give applicants their choice of payment options makes sense and would not overly burden the providers, a large majority of respondents said. One respondent wrote, “I have seen too many schools not get reimbursement from the service provider due to bankruptcy.” Others noted that service providers are free to take part in the eRate program at their discretion, and if they don’t want to change their billing procedures to incorporate discounts on services as these services are delivered, they don’t have to participate.

Several respondents noted that for applicants truly to have a choice in the matter, the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co.—the group that administers the eRate—must process all applications before the start of each program year, something that hasn’t happened in any funding year to date.

2. The appeals period should be extended to 60 days, and successful appeals should be fully funded.

Currently, applicants must file an appeal within 30 days of the date their funding commitment letter was issued—but respondents overwhelmingly agreed this is an unreasonable expectation. Extending the deadline for appeals to 60 days makes sense, one respondent wrote, “particularly since many denials involve complex decisions.”

3. Audits should not occur at the recipients’ expense unless fraud is detected.

The FCC had proposed requiring independent audits at the recipients’ expense when there is a “strong reason” to believe that problems exist. But a vast majority of respondents said this would not be fair to applicants, most of whom already are overburdened with expenses and would not be in a position to pay for such an audit. Only those entities found to have intentionally violated program rules should pay for audits, respondents said.

4. Any unused or unclaimed funds should be carried over to the next program year.

Funds that go unused or unclaimed by applicants in a given program year should not be returned to telecommunications carriers, respondents overwhelmingly agreed. Given that the current funding cap of $2.25 billion is insufficient to meet the high demand for eRate discounts each year, any unused funds should be applied toward the following program year.

“Carriers are free to recover their contributions to the fund from their customers,” one respondent wrote. “Carriers should not be allowed to double dip by imposing a universal service charge on their customers and also receiving reimbursements from the eRate program.”

Respondents were more evenly divided on other issues. Although most agreed that voice-mail and wireless services should be eligible for discounts, a sampling of responses showed opinions were mixed on whether to allow discounts on wireless services for “educational purposes” only.

Some respondents said the FCC should limit the eligible use of wireless services to educational purposes only to protect the program’s integrity; others argued that so-called “non-educational” uses of wireless technology—such as the use of cell phone service by school bus drivers—are vital to the educational mission of school districts.

“It is not unusual in Montana for children to travel by school bus 30 or 40 miles each way to and from school over secondary roads in remote areas during harsh weather conditions,” wrote one respondent. “Safety and education cannot be separated.”

Opinions also varied on whether the FCC should establish an online menu of eligible services from which applicants can choose when they apply. While some respondents said this would be helpful in sorting out which equipment is eligible and which is not, others said a computerized list actually would make the process more cumbersome.

“Technology keeps changing at such a rapid pace that the SLD would expend too many valuable resources attempting to keep the Eligible Services List current,” one respondent wrote. SLD staff members “need to focus their efforts on reviewing and approving applications in a more timely manner.”

Most respondents seemed to agree that some sort of punishment is warranted for repeated rules transgressors, but opinions differed on what an appropriate punishment might be—and how to decide which applicants or service providers would deserve it.

Other issues on which responses were divided include:

  • Eligibility of internet access bundled with content—even if such bundled packages represent the most cost-effective alternative for internet access.

  • Transferability of funds to other eligible services, or to other eligible schools within the same district. Most respondents favored some sort of restrictions on this, but opinions differed about what these restrictions should be.

  • Whether the FCC should deny funding for internal connections to applicants who have received funding for these services already within a certain time period. Supporters of this measure said it would allow more schools to receive funding for internal connections, which did not reach beyond the 86-percent discount level last year. Opponents said it would create a barrier to high-need schools that choose to complete wiring projects in phases rather than all at once.

  • Sharing of excess bandwidth with the community during after-school hours, as long as this does not increase the program’s costs. An earlier ruling by the FCC gave permission for rural Alaska residents without access to toll-free, dial-up internet access to tap into the excess capacity of satellite-based school internet access purchased with eRate funds, but only outside of regular school hours. Many respondents seemed to favor an expansion of this ruling to encompass all eRate recipients, provided this does not add to the cost of services purchased with eRate funds. An expansion of this ruling would allow schools to enable local community groups that run after-school programs to tap into their unused bandwidth, for example, further extending internet access according to the program’s intent. But some respondents cautioned against this approach; one said the FCC’s earlier decision “opens a Pandora’s Box—rescind it.”

School leaders and other eRate stakeholders have until May 6 to file their responses to any of these comments with the FCC. To review the comments, go to http://www.fcc.gov/e-file/ecfs.html, click on “Search for filed comments,” and enter “02-6” in the field labeled “Proceeding.”

Links:

Federal Communications Commission
http://www.fcc.gov

Schools and Libraries Division
http://www.sl.universalservice.org

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Robotics competition sparks students’ interest in science and technology

Large-screen TV close-up images of wheels spinning, gears turning, and sparks flying—and deafening cheers of hyped-up high school students—provided the backdrop for a high-tech gathering of future scientists April 4-6.

Accompanied by the music of NSync and the Backstreet Boys, stomping in the stands, and the pounding of crudely fashioned drums, 63 teams of high school students, teachers, technicians, and engineers piloted their robots in the United Technologies New England Regional FIRST Robotics Competition in New Haven, Conn.

“You can tell it isn’t a science fair,” Steve Prairie, a junior from nearby Rockville High School, said above the din.

The goal was to use a student-built robot to put as many soccer balls in a container as possible and get the container into the goal area.

Teams were given six weeks to design, fabricate, build, and ship their robots, said East Hartford High School teacher Chuck Nystrom. Each team began with a common set of materials.

The East Hartford High School team members included student technicians, engineering mentors, and “The Bulldog,” a plywood frame with a chain-drive transmission, ball pickup apparatus, and roller belt drive to roll the balls into a rectangular basket.

The Bulldog is radio-controlled by a computer link supplied by FIRST, which began the competition with 28 teams 10 years ago. More than 20,000 students are participating in the FIRST Robotics Competition this year on more than 600 teams nationwide, as well as Canada, Brazil, and the United Kingdom.

FIRST, an acronym for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” was founded by Dean Kamen, who introduced the Segway human transporter project earlier this year. Kamen started the competition to introduce students to science, math, engineering, and invention.

“Where else can you see technology, science, and math being put to such exciting use?” Nystrom said. “As a teacher, I’m always looking for exciting ways to bring the subject into the classroom.”

Prairie, the Rockville High School student, said the program will “definitely have an influence” on his career choice. “It’s been nice to get hands-on training with engineers in this program,” he said.

Bruce Hockaday, an engineer at Pratt & Whitney, said the program reminds him of his high school days.

“I lacked direction when I left high school,” he said. “So now I try to catch kids who are just like I was.”

In addition to the New England event, regional FIRST competitions also were held April 4-6 in Los Angeles, St. Louis, Toronto, and Grand Rapids, Mich. In all, 17 regional competitions were held between March and April this year.

The East Hartford team was not among the winners in the April 6 regional final, but it qualified at a competition between 39 teams in Long Island a month ago to compete in the national championship, the final and largest event of the competition.

The national event is scheduled for April 25-27 at Epcot Center in Orlando, Fla., and will feature 288 teams.

Links:

FIRST Robotics Competition
http://www.usfirst.org/robotics

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