Supreme Court to weigh in on CIPA

In the latest chapter in the debate over the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), the U. S. Supreme Court on Nov. 12 said it will decide whether the government can restrict internet surfing at public libraries.

Whichever way it goes, the high court ruling will not have a direct bearing on schools, but the decision could influence whether free-speech advocates mount a subsequent challenge to CIPA as it pertains to school computers

In the current case, the court will resolve whether federal funding can be stripped from libraries that don’t install filters on computers to block sexually explicit web sites. This is the third case to reach the justices pitting free-speech concerns against efforts to shield children from online pornography.

The decision would affect more than 14 million people a year who use public library computers to do research, send and receive eMail, and—in some cases—log onto adult sites.

A three-judge federal panel in Pennsylvania ruled last spring that CIPA violates the Constitution’s First Amendment because the filtering programs also block sites on politics, health, science, and other nonpornographic topics.

The judges recommended less restrictive ways to control internet use, such as requiring parental consent before minors are allowed to log in on an unfiltered computer or having a parent monitor a child’s web use.

Although the federal court’s ruling did not directly affect schools’ use of filtering software, some legal experts believe the lower court’s findings might encourage students or educators to challenge CIPA as it applies to schools.

“The filtering turns the internet into something fit for a 5-year-old, and not even that. It blocks enormous amounts of protected speech,” said Charles Sims, a First Amendment lawyer in New York. “Congress can’t get it right.”

Lawmakers have passed three child protection laws since 1996, but the Supreme Court struck down the first and blocked the second from taking effect. Those dealt with regulations on web site operators. Legislators tried a new approach with the 2000 law, arguing that it should be able to regulate government property.

“The government has more authority when it’s controlling the purse strings than when it’s deciding what people can do with private funds and private property,” said Eugene Volokh, a conservative constitutional expert at UCLA Law School.

Still, Volokh predicts the government will lose as the high court again grapples with the balance between protecting children and preserving free speech. The court has been very protective of First Amendment rights.

The Bush administration said in its filings that libraries are not required to have X-rated movies and pornographic magazines and shouldn’t have to offer access to pornography on their computers.

The law is opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association, and other groups.

“The public library is for everybody. That’s why it’s called public,” Barbara Gloriod, a librarian in Washington for more than 20 years, said Nov. 12 as patrons surfed the internet nearby on computers without filters. “Filters are just not good enough. They don’t filter out all the bad and they do filter out some of the good.”

The state of Texas joined the federal arguments at the Supreme Court.

“Parents should not be afraid to send their children to the library, either because they might be exposed to such materials or because the library’s free, filterless computers might attract people with a propensity to victimize children,” wrote Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, who was elected to the U.S. Senate earlier in November.

Congress knew the latest law would be challenged, and directed any appeals to go straight to the Supreme Court after a trial before a three-judge panel.

U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson said the lower court’s ruling hurts Congress’s effort to ensure that money spent for education does not pay instead for access “to the enormous amount of illegal and harmful pornography on the internet.”

Paul Smith, the library association’s attorney, said thousands of web sites that have nothing to do with sex are blocked by filtering companies. “You have an awful lot of censorship going on, and it’s censorship the librarian is not in control of,” he said.

The Supreme Court struck down the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which made it a crime to put adult-oriented material online where children can find it. The court said the law violated free-speech rights because it would keep material from adults who have a right to see it.

This year the court upheld part of the 1998 Child Online Protection Act, which required web sites to collect credit card numbers or other proof of age before allowing internet users to view material deemed harmful to minors. But justices did not rule on the law’s constitutionality, and the government was barred from enforcing it.

The CIPA case is United States v. American Library Association, 02-361.

Links:

Supreme Court
http://www.supremecourtus.gov

American Civil Liberties Union
http://www.aclu.org

American Library Association
http://www.ala.org/cipa

Justice Department
http://www.usdoj.gov

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“eCYBERMISSION” challenges students to be all they can be

With this new contest sponsored by the United States Army, seventh and eighth grade students are encouraged to work together, using science, math, and technology to help solve real-world problems within their communities. Students who wish to compete first must select a “Mission Challenge.” Challenges are left to the discretion of students, as long as the proposed projects focus on one of four themes—arts and entertainment, health and safety, sports and recreation, or the environment—and benefit some aspect of the community in which they live. Once students have chosen a theme, they must put their project into motion. Students are encouraged to collaborate using discussion forums, bulletin boards, and monitored chat sessions through the eCYBERMISSION web site. Challenges will be graded by judges based on a number of criteria, including the use of science, math, and technology; innovation, originality, and creativity; benefit to the community; and teamwork. Any students who submit projects for review will receive a free t-shirt and certificate of commendation. Winners will be eligible for a number of prizes, including savings bonds, plaques, medals, media interviews, and more. Students who wish to compete in the program must submit applications by Nov. 30.

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Preparation for math and science careers

The Upward Bound Math and Science Program is designed to prepare high school students for postsecondary education programs that lead to careers in the fields of math and science. Secondary schools are eligible for this grant if there are no other applicants capable of providing an Upward Bound project in the area. The grant is targeted for institutions of higher education, public and private agencies and organizations, including community and faith-based organizations.

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NAEIR helps schools tap corporate largesse

Schools nationwide are saving money on supplies—such as computer disks, power cords, and paper—by ordering them from a foundation that places overstocked merchandise in schools for almost nothing.

NAEIR—which stands for the National Exchange of Industrial Resources—solicits donations of excess inventory from corporations and redistributes them among its 9,500 members, which include schools, hospitals, day-care centers, and other nonprofit organizations.

The merchandise is brand new and costs nothing itself, although participants must pay an annual membership fee as well as shipping and handling costs.

Norbert C. Smith, an airplane parts manufacturer and consultant, started NAEIR in 1977 after noticing how much excess inventory companies have. The tax laws had also just changed, letting corporations deduct twice the cost of unsold goods by donating them to a school or other nonprofit organization.

The foundation gives companies a corporate tax deduction in exchange for the merchandise, which is sent to NAEIR’s warehouse in Illinois where it is sorted, cataloged, and shipped to members.

“Any materials that our members receive have to be used for the care of ill, needy, or minors, and [the goods] cannot be bartered, traded, or sold,” said Robert Gilstrap, vice president and chief financial officer of NAEIR.

Through NAEIR, schools have received office supplies, textbooks and activity books, janitorial supplies, toys, games, paper goods, holiday novelties, overhead projectors, science equipment, temper paints, stencils, crayons, construction paper, incubators, high-temperature ovens, refrigerators, and freezers.

NAEIR doesn’t receive computer donations, but it does offer computer supplies and software.

“There are computer diskettes, labels, CD-ROMs, computer paper—all sorts of computer supplies,” said Kelly Smith, business manager for Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville, Ga. “You get a lot of supplies for a lot less.”

Joan Lutton, principal of the Cushman School in Miami, Fla., has been ordering from NAEIR for 15 years.

“We’ve been doing it for a long time, and it’s great,” Lutton said. “We’ve gotten stuff like vacuum cleaners, books. One time we got folding chairs for assemblies.”

Robert Thomas, principal of Jamieson Elementary School in Detroit, said the service is useful for ordering incentives for students.

“I just got a shipment of Christmas lollipops for the kids, and it only cost me the shipping, which was nominal,” Thomas said. “Last year, we got some tapes and children’s books where children can read the book along with the tape.”

NAEIR has two main membership programs. Catalog members pay a yearly fee of $575 to receive five 200-page catalogs a year, one every 10 weeks. The catalogs provide a photo and detailed description of each item. The items often come in bulk.

“Most of the catalogs have between 2,500 and 3,000 items available,” Gilstrap said. “Each catalog is different and based on what’s being donated.”

Members also pay a shipping and handling fee of $99 per order. The fee is fixed. If the order is worth $1,000 or $15,000, members still pay $99, Gilstrap said.

In addition to the five catalogs, NAEIR also issues its members special offers.

These offers usually feature kits—made up of office supplies or janitorial supplies—that NAEIR puts together. The shipping and handling fees for special offers vary.

Members also can check out the NAEIR web site, which lists items in great demand but short supply. These items have included fax machines, refrigerators, freezers, furnaces, matching office furniture sets, and vinyl flooring.

The second program, called Members Choice, charges $39.50 per year for a quarterly 8-page flyer that features18 to 20 items.

Schools interested in learning more should call (800) 562-0955.

Links:

NAEIR: The National Exchange of Industrial Resources
http://www.naeir.org

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Feds invest $3.5 million in child online safety program

The federal government is investing more than $3 million in a new online safety program meant to empower children with the skills to sidestep dangerous, sometimes deadly internet predators.

The program, called “The i-Safe Safe School Education Initiative and Outreach Campaign” and developed by the nonprofit i-Safe America Inc., is a combination of safety-oriented lessons and community-based outreach activities centered on teaching safe, effective internet use.

Sponsored by two Congressional appropriations totaling $3.554 million, the program will be funded by the Child Protective Division of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), part of the U.S. Department of Justice (JD).

The grant marks the first of its kind issued and supported through the OJJDP, said Teri Schroeder, the founder and CEO of i-Safe America, who wrote the proposal. “Congress said now is the time, because crimes against youth have escalated to such an epidemic,” she said. “Congress really felt it needed to step in.”

The award was made just a few months after the May 17 murder of a 13-year-old Connecticut girl, who authorities believe met her killer in cyberspace.

Christina Long was strangled to death, allegedly during a sexual rendezvous with 25-year-old Saul Dos Reis. Police claim Dos Reis used the internet to entice Long into a clandestine meeting, which ended with the child’s murder in a McDonald’s parking lot in Danbury, Conn.

Her story has since become a national testament to the violence committed by online predators who lure their young prey under the anonymous cover of internet chat rooms and eMail messages.

But the Connecticut case is just one in a growing roster of violent and malicious crimes perpetrated by online criminals on youthful targets—a problem i-Safe says schools and communities are in a position to do something about.

According to Schroeder, the program—which will roll out in 25 states by February 2003—is built on a unique model that encourages involvement at every level of the community, from classroom curricula and parental participation to public functions supported by local business leaders and in-school activities conducted by law enforcement.

On the curriculum side, students must complete five lessons—all tacked to a different notion of online safety. Although the program is just getting under way, i-Safe expects each lesson will be delivered through a variety of interactive channels, including video lessons, webcasts, group discussions, teacher-led activities, and worksheets about how to stay safe online.

For instance, the first lesson teaches youth how to recognize red flags indicating possible computer viruses and to protect one’s machine against unwanted, often persistent intruders.

The second stage asks children to understand the rules and consequences of cyberspace. The curriculum explains that dialogue transmitted online is as tangible as a conversation between teacher and student in the classroom.

Third, students are taught to spot cyber predators by identifying the common approaches used in their schemes. According to Schroeder, the curriculum focuses on how to avoid inappropriate situations, such as entering chat rooms where one user has logged on several times under a number of aliases.

The fourth lesson includes law enforcement in the process. At this stage, local authorities are invited into the classroom to help illustrate how missteps in cyberspace can have real-life consequences. For instance, an FBI official might be invited to a school to talk about a process known as “grooming.”

According to Schroeder, “grooming” is the slang term for the method savvy predators use to select, monitor, and pin down their child victims across the internet. Often predators keep meticulous files of personal information about potential targets, including everything form a child’s hair color to home town and birthday, she said.

Once a few pieces of information have been collected successfully, making a positive ID from a supposedly anonymous online encounter is easy, Schroeder warned. That’s why it’s important to teach children what details are considered personally identifiable information and why it’s important not to give that information away online.

The final lesson in the program deals with another issue in the online safety debate: plagiarism and copyright infringement. “It’s easy to steal from the internet,” Schroeder said. With i-Safe, students learn how to use the materials that are available online appropriately.

Schroeder claims there is not enough communication between students and their parents—or parents and the community—about what acceptable online practices should be. That’s why the i-Safe program provides for activities that transfer the burden of teaching online safety beyond classroom walls and into the community.

According to the organization, its Outreach/Youth Empowerment Campaign will sponsor community-based events, including public assemblies, parent-oriented internet awareness sessions, and public service announcements conducted by famous role models from professional sports and movies. The goal will be to encourage dialogue and demonstrate the need to discuss inappropriate advances as they are encountered online with those who can help.

“It is important that the community embrace this,” Schroeder said. “It brings the issue of accountability full circle.”

i-Safe isn’t the only program promising to help keep students safe in cyberspace. The Stay Safe Online program, sponsored by the National Cyber Security Alliance, uses curriculum from the CyberSmart School program to teach a set of skills called SMART—otherwise known as safety, manners, advertising, research, and technology. The program contains a full range of lessons for children, as well as tutorial videos for teachers about how to merge the exercises into existing curricula. eSchool News reported on that initiative May 22.

NetDay’s Cyber Security Kit for schools is another resource that has evolved out of increasing national concerns over cyber safety. The fully online toolkit provides links, news, stories, and reports for educators, administrators, and other stakeholders about how to avoid many of dangers that lurk online.

Links:

i-Safe America Inc.
http://www.isafe.org

Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention
http://ojjdp.ncjrs.org

Cyber Security Kit
http://www.netday.org/cyber_security_kit.htm

Stay Safe Online Program
http://www.staysafeonline.info

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States debate ‘face time’ requirement for virtual schools

Teachers at Ohio’s five online charter schools would have to meet with students in person every eight weeks, under proposed changes to a bill that would overhaul that state’s charter school law. Similar rules for online charter schools are pending in other states as well.

Online schools in Ohio also would receive less state aid if multiple students from the same family enroll in the schools, according to the proposal, which has split GOP lawmakers trying to pass the bill by year’s end.

The rewrite of the charter school bill was scheduled for hearings before the Republican-controlled Senate Education Committee on Nov. 12.

The bill, originally sponsored by Rep. Jon Husted, passed the Republican-controlled House in March. It attempts to make charter schools more financially accountable while expanding the types of groups that can sponsor the schools.

But Husted disagrees so strongly with a few changes in the Senate version that he might not support the new bill.

“I’m a little worried some of the things being considered are just regulation for the sake of regulation,” said Husted, a Dayton-area Republican. “eSchools having to do personal visits with students—while that may sound good, I’m not sure what it achieves.”

Sen. Robert Gardner, Education Committee chairman, said all he’s heard in two years of hearings is the importance of good teachers.

“Yet now we’re going to set up eSchools where students don’t even see a teacher?” said Gardner, a Madison Republican and former classroom teacher.

Ohio lawmakers created charter schools as a competitive alternative to big-city schools, which they said were failing to properly educate children.

The goal was to free the publicly funded but privately run schools from state regulations and allow them to experiment with innovative approaches. The Senate bill would do just the opposite, Husted said.

“One of the things that makes charter schools appealing is the freedom they have to operate,” he said. “If we do too much nickel-and-dime regulation of them, we undermine the purpose of having them to begin with.”

Many charter school advocates are furious about the proposed changes affecting Ohio’s online schools.

“You might have a teacher with students who live in Gallipolis and Toledo and Youngstown and Cincinnati,” said Steve Ramsey, president of the Ohio Charter Schools Association. “They could very comfortably teach them using the internet, but if it came to driving to visit them in their home, they’d be in their car all the time and not teaching.”

Also, the proposal to reduce state aid to online schools based on the number of children a family enrolls is unfair to the schools and could be unconstitutional, Ramsey said.

Opponents of the state’s charter schools, including most Democrats and Ohio’s teachers unions, say the schools aren’t working. They point to low test scores and several schools that have closed because of financial problems.

The online provisions in the Senate bill are an improvement but still a piecemeal approach, said Tom Mooney, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers.

“There are a few attempts to rein in the out-of-control eSchools, but it’s not near enough,” Mooney said.

Where online schools are concerned, the question is, “Do we really want to have these, and if so, what kind of safeguards do we want to ensure quality, and how much money should they get?” Mooney said.

The five online charter schools currently operating in Ohio are expected to enroll about 5,200 students this year and receive about $28 million in state aid.

Other states are grappling with similar questions. In Minnesota, for example, current state rules limit the ability of schools to seek state funding for offering their classes to home-schooled students by requiring online programs to include five hours of instruction inside a public-school building each week.

Lawmakers there are considering, among other issues, whether this “face-time” rule hinders the spread of online schooling across the state.

“This is a critical innovation in education that we need to get good at … relatively quickly,” said Minnesota Sen. Steve Kelley (D-Hopkins), who has worked on the topic for several years.

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Survey rates states’ use of learning technologies

Undeterred by a sluggish economy, some state governments are pumping more resources than ever into new technologies meant to improve services in schools and other municipalities, according to the latest survey conducted by the Center for Digital Government.

The 2002 “Digital State Survey,” cosponsored by Government Technology magazine and the Progress and Freedom Foundation, ranked state governments nationwide for their use of technology to support services in such key municipal areas as education, taxation, and transportation.

According to the study, released Nov. 1, five states—Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, South Dakota, and Utah—are among the most adept at using digital technologies for educational purposes. Although three of these states—Illinois, South Dakota, and Utah—bested the survey for a second straight year, both Arizona and Indiana vaulted eight positions to grab a share of the No. 1 ranking in 2002.

Making new inroads into technology hasn’t been easy for state education departments this year. Nationwide budget shortfalls have spurred a reshuffling of long-term agendas, and a changed political landscape—compounded by tumultuous mid-term elections—has left several state initiatives teetering in uncertainty.

Still, state educators appear more committed than ever to expanding the role technology plays in improving education, said Janet Grenslitt, senior researcher and special projects manager for the Center for Digital Government.

In measuring the effectiveness of each state’s ed-tech initiatives, the center focused on a number of criteria, including online tools for administrative functions such as financial aid records and course registration, internet access in schools, school performance measures, and the availability of distance learning programs.

In Arizona, for example, education officials paid Qwest Communications Inc. more than $140 million to equip all of the state’s schools with high-speed internet access and shelled out an additional $27.9 million to Cox Business Services Inc. for the creation of the Cox Educational Network—a combination of online tools, streaming video, and customizable curriculum designed to run in concert with the massive technology infrastructure.

“I can’t tell you why we’re No. 1,” interim Arizona School Facilities Board Director Ed Boot said. “But I certainly can tell you why we’re doing well.”

According to Boot, a lot has changed in Arizona schools during the last 15 months. For instance, the state’s education network now has 980,000 registered users—parents and students—who can access more than 700 software titles via a secure user ID from one of the schools’ 165,000 computers or from any internet-connected machine, anywhere in the world, free of charge.

Boot estimated that Arizona has poured more than $200 million into educational technology services over the last year and a half. According to the Center for Digital Government, it was the result of those efforts that fueled Arizona’s ascension to the No. 1 spot in this year’s study.

Indiana, which jumped up eight spots on the survey in tandem with Arizona, is another state whose much-improved status was the result of breakthrough technology programs. According to the researchers, the Indiana Web Academy is doing its part to help close the digital divide for students there.

One program, Indiana’s eParent initiative—which allows for the digital communication of grades, eMail messages, attendance records, student information, and curriculum across the state—is exceptional for its ability to engage parents, school officials, and students in efforts to improve education at every level, researchers said.

The Web Academy also provides virtual lockers, or online storage facilities where students can house ongoing projects and research; eFlash, a statewide electronic newsletter on education news and programs; and EZ-Website, an interactive web design template that lets students build and craft their own unique web pages.

But in Indiana, officials do more than provide technology for technology’s sake; they also offer the instruction necessary to make sure students and faculty are getting what they need out of such high-tech investments.

According to the state education department’s web site, Indiana offers a range of technology training options, from one-hour seminars on simple word-processing applications to week-long “boot camps” on web design and effective technology integration.

South Dakota, which faces the challenge of incorporating greater course diversity into small, remote, and often distant schoolhouses, relies heavily on technology to provide new classes and more options for its students, said Ray Christensen, secretary for the South Dakota Department of Education and Cultural Affairs.

Two comprehensive, statewide information systems—the Digital Dakota Network (DDN) and DDN Campus—provide a robust set of tools for students, parents, and educators to improve the quality of education in each school and home across the state, he said.

DDN Campus, for instance, enables South Dakota school districts to create class schedules for students electronically, as well as store, sort, and compare aggregated academic records as required under the No Child Left Behind Act, distribute electronic report cards to parents, check real-time attendance data, track disciplinary records, and publish school accountability information such as test scores and graduation rates online.

The state also is using its robust technology infrastructure to provide more diverse learning opportunities for its students, Christensen said.

According to him, DDN is used to stream interactive videoconferences and new curricula to some of the state’s most isolated school buildings. The effort brings course content to students in rural areas who otherwise would have fewer choices of study. “Technology really takes away the remoteness,” Christensen said.

South Dakota schools also got a boost this year from the Technology for Teaching and Learning Academy, a four-week training program for the state’s teachers to help them integrate technology into the classroom, Christensen said.

Utah—which, like South Dakota, landed atop the list for a second straight year—was able to retain its No. 1 ranking by bolstering its 20-year-old Utah Education Network, which helps promote technology integration throughout the state, researchers said.

And in Illinois, three revolutionary technology initiatives contributed to that state’s share of first-place honors again this year.

At the crux of Illinois’ statewide technology infrastructure lies the Illinois Century Network (ICN). This far-reaching, high-speed technology backbone takes a communal approach to education and data sharing by interconnecting schools with libraries, museums, and municipal agencies throughout the state. Once connected, each institution enjoys the use of video tools, internet access, and data-sharing capabilities, said Mary Reynolds, chief technology officer for the state of Illinois.

“Education has always been a catalyst for cooperation and organization,” said Grenslitt, who added that states performing best under the survey’s criteria were the ones that showed ambition and the ability to turn their technology visions into real-world programs.

In Illinois, “We are really trying to hit every angle in terms of education technology,” Reynolds said. But according to the survey’s criteria, it takes more than just good networks for state governments to prove their worth in digital education.

Other initiatives, such as distance learning, also are important, researchers said.

Illinois boasts two online schools, the Illinois Virtual High School and the Illinois Virtual Campus. Whether studying in higher education or searching for ways to diversify course options in secondary schools, students with computer access have the ability to expand the breadth of their education outside the traditional course catalogue by enrolling online.

According to Reynolds, the increased use of technology enables Illinois to deliver educational services more quickly and seamlessly to schools than ever before. “Simplicity is a great goal. It’s one of the goals we are striving for by way of technology,” she said.

The five best-performing states weren’t the only ones making headway this year. According to Grenslitt, at least 30 states operate tools that store, maintain, and aggregate data based on student achievement; 27 have statewide plans for information technology and staff development; and 24 states now foster eLearning initiatives with at least one pilot program, whether it’s a virtual high school or some other source of online learning.

“We’re attempting to draw awareness to new accomplishments and the value of digital technology in various areas,” Grenslitt said of the survey. “Technology plays an integral role in how the government operates. It’s really been a good year for educational technology.”

Links:

Center for Digital Government
http://www.centerdigitalgov.com

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Bone up on the latest reading research with “The Partnership for Reading”

From the National Institute for Literacy, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the U.S. Department of Education comes The Partnership for Reading, a collaborative effort intended to provide educators with the findings of evidence-based reading research. Educators, parents, and other stakeholders can use this site as a point of reference to research key approaches such as phonics, fluency, vocabulary comprehension, and phonemic awareness. Other resources include suggestions for how to integrate technology into the reading curriculum, as well as links to continuing teacher education. For background, educators have access to the partnership’s criteria for improved reading instruction, including its definition of reading, its research stipulations, and its main principles. The site also provides access to a massive database of reading research materials separated by subject and skill emphasized, as well as recommended resources for continued research and frequently asked questions. The partnership also plans to add an online discussion forum for educators; however, this phase is still under construction.

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$400 million gift aids school laptop program

Its attention drawn by Maine’s middle-school laptop program, a Texas company said that it’s giving Maine schools software valued at $400 million to help the state implement its pioneering effort.

Electronic Data Systems (EDS), which announced the gift Nov. 7, also will make its software available to Maine high schools and the Maine Technical College and state university systems, so students using it will be better trained to work for precision manufacturers.

Maine Gov. Angus King said that to his knowledge, the gift—with a commercial value of $400 million—is the largest ever made to the state.

“It’s somewhat breathtaking to be announcing a gift of this magnitude,” added King, whose effort to make laptop computers available to every seventh- and eighth-grader attracted sharp criticism within the state even as it drew interest nationally and from other countries.

The governor hailed the donation as one that “gives us a fighting change to protect our manufacturing base.”

Hulas King of EDS, who announced the gift at a news conference with the governor, said it also was the largest gift the Plano, Texas, company has ever provided for educational purposes.

The EDS official said his company’s attention was drawn to Maine largely by the laptop program Maine’s governor has championed since he proposed it three years ago. The initiative came into full swing this year when computers started appearing in middle schools throughout the state.

EDS also was attracted by Maine students’ good performance in tests that measure academic achievement, said EDS’s King. He also demonstrated the software, which is used by 24,000 manufacturers, including 400 in Maine.

The cutting-edge software has applications in manufacturing, aerospace, medical technologies and other fields.

Many of Maine’s resource-based industries have given way to businesses that rely on advanced training, such as semiconductors and computer-aided boat building. Meanwhile, the state has taken steps to better prepare Maine students to embrace technology.

Wick Johnson of Kennebec Tool & Die Co. Inc. in Augusta, Me., said one of the biggest challenges for precision manufacturing industries such as his is “keeping up with the intellectual capital.”

EDS’s gift “really does open up the world, and a whole new world, to the students of Maine,” Johnson said.

Links:

EDS
http://www.eds.com

Maine Learning Technology Initiative
http://www.mainelearns.org

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New eRate tool IDs questionable vendors

A new online tool created by the agency that administers the eRate can be used to find out which service providers in a given state might be engaging in questionable practices, some eRate consultants say—thereby warning applicants either to steer clear from these providers or ask tough questions before signing any contracts.

The Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co., the agency that created the tool—which some applicants and consultants are calling the “single biggest advancement” to the eRate program in years—does not officially endorse this practice. On the other hand, the SLD doesn’t condemn the practice, either.

Service providers who spoke with eSchool News about the practice cautioned applicants to investigate companies further before leaping to conclusions.

The tool in question, called the Funding Request Data Retrieval Tool, allows anyone with internet access to download and examine Form 471 data from applicants in any given program year to find out key information: the dollar amounts specific applicants requested from the program, which vendors they selected, what services they applied for, whether they were approved for funding, and more. (Form 471 is the document schools submit to apply for eRate funding.)

“It is a powerful tool that allows people to go into our databases and find out just about anything on anybody,” SLD spokesman Mel Blackwell said. “It saves administrative work on our part and [provides] access to information people have wanted … in the past.”

The Data Retrieval Tool gives users the freedom to create customized queries specific to their needs. “It’s kind of like a car—you can get in and drive anywhere you want,” Blackwell said.

The data are downloaded in tab-delimited format, so they can be imported into Microsoft Excel or a similar spreadsheet program.

The tool is especially useful for state officials who need to identify which school districts under their jurisdiction need help applying for the eRate, so they can target their professional development resources accordingly.

“[These] data [were] never available before without calling the SLD and asking for each applicant in my state, ‘Have they done this yet?'” said Julie Tritt Schell, eRate consultant and former technology director for the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

“Without the Data Retrieval Tool, state coordinators are operating blind,” agreed Greg Weisiger, eRate coordinator for the Virginia Department of Education. The tool shows which schools or districts have filed which forms, he said, giving state coordinators the chance to contact their school districts and remind them of upcoming deadlines.

It also can point out discrepancies in funding levels, Weisiger said. The data easily can be sorted and analyzed to determine how much various school districts and companies have received, and who’s not getting any money.

For example, Weisiger used the tool to find out that an 18-school Arizona district received $26 million in discounts over two years. “The entire state of Virginia normally gets $23 [million] to $25 million for 1,800 schools,” Weisiger said.

After investigating further, he discovered the high-poverty Arizona district was installing fiber-optic cabling to the desktop and the eRate was paying for it. The district had hired a consultant to maximize its discount.

This is perfectly legal under the program’s rules, but many applicants and service providers try to stretch the rules and even defraud the $2.25 billion-a-year program outright, according to the SLD.

SLD Vice President George McDonald told eRate state coordinators attending a training conference in September that his agency is reviewing a number of applications to see if there is a pattern of attempted abuse.

McDonald and FCC auditor Tom Cline detailed some specific types of abuse they are finding. In one scheme, a router with a purchase price of $20,000 reportedly was being leased to an applicant for $20,000 per year. The applicant also had a maintenance agreement on the equipment of $96,000 per year.

Although the SLD won’t reveal which companies are suspected of such abuses, some consultants familiar with the program say the agency’s Data Retrieval Tool can be used to identify which service providers might be questionable.

“It clearly shows you which providers are requesting the most from the fund and who is getting denied the most,” Tritt Schell said of the tool.

In fact, eRate Central Inc., an eRate consulting group that serves New York state, has distributed advice to school districts about using the tool for this purpose.

The group’s Oct. 7 eMail newsletter says, “One suggestion for those seeking to avoid becoming embroiled in SLD investigations, by selecting and listing a suspect vendor on a Form 471 application, is to use the SLD’s new Data Retrieval Tool to identify vendors who seem to have been previously involved in a disproportionately high number of funding denials or delays.”

The newsletter gives specific steps to follow to check the approval rate of vendors. (For more information, see the link to “Questionable Supplier Practices” at the end of this story.)

In his own test, Win Himsworth, president of eRate Central, told eSchool News he identified at least 12 vendors listed on multiple New York schools’ eRate applications for funding year 2001 that had “unusually unsuccessful” approval rates.

“Ten of the 12 had never had a funding request funded on any of the applications on which they appeared,” Himsworth said.

The reason for this is unclear, he acknowledged; there could be problems or mistakes on the applicants’ part, the companies’ part, or it simply could be a matter of chance. But such a disproportionate number of funding requests under investigation and linked to the same service provider should raise a red flag for other applicants, he said.

Himsworth wouldn’t name the 12 companies he was referring to. But following eRate Central’s advice, eSchool News was able to find several service providers in New York listed on a disproportionate number of applications still pending for the 2001 program year—meaning these applications are being reviewed more closely by the SLD for possible violations of the program’s rules.

One of these companies was Connect2 Internet Networks Inc., a well-established internet service provider in business for 21 years that serves more than 100 small private schools in New York state. Using the Data Retrieval Tool, eSchool News found that of the 88 applications listing Connect2 as a service provider in 2001, three were funded, 27 were denied funding, and 58 are still pending.

“We’re being audited, but we strongly believe we will be exonerated,” said Jim Belits, area sales coordinator for Connect2.

Belits said using the Data Retrieval Tool to look at a company’s approval rate seems fair, but he recommended that schools also dig further and ask the company for references.

“If I were in the school’s shoes, I would use that to get an idea of how the service provider is doing—but I wouldn’t use it as the only indicator,” Belits said. “If you look at Year Three data [from the 2000 program year], you’ll see that we were very successful.”

Belits said selecting a company based solely on past approval rates is still a gamble.

“The guy you pick for Year Six because he got all his [applications] approved in Year Five could still get squashed in Year Six,” Belits said. “If you want a final word, call up your service provider and get a reference from current clients.”

Shortly after the initial report on this matter appeared at eSchool News Online, John Angelides, president of Connect2, contacted the editors to say his firm should not have been mentioned in the initial report. He took exception to Belits’ comments and said that Belits was not authorized to speak to the press. Angelides then offered the following comment by way of clarification:

“Connect2 has been funded 100 percent for Year One, 95.8 percent for Year Two, and 83 percent for Year Three. The fact that we didn’t receive all our funding for Year Four, could be any of a number of reasons, including a closer view of our schools’ applications.

“We have not been contacted by the FCC/SLD that Connect2 is under any audit whatsoever.

“Connect2 has been serving schools since the inception of the eRate program, and we will continue giving services to any school that needs them.”

These comments underscore the risks of reading too much into the raw results produced by the Data Retrieval Tool.

SLD’s Blackwell agreed that applicants should further investigate service providers before making any hasty judgments.

“We are giving you information, and you need to use it to make the best decisions. But you can’t just stop there,” Blackwell said. “You need to take it to the next step and ask those questions.”

Links:

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

Funding Request Data Retrieval Tool
http://www.sl.universalservice.org/funding/OpenDataSearch

eRate Central Inc.
http://www.e-ratecentral.com

Questionable Supplier Practices (scroll down a bit)
http://e-ratecentral.com/archive/News2002/weekly_news_215.htm

Connect2 Internet Networks Inc.
http://www.edu-net.com/index.html

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