Microsoft Corp. on April 15 announced a tentative settlement of a class-action lawsuit in Florida that would allow the state’s neediest schools to buy hardware and software from any vendor and to purchase professional development services, including advanced technology training, leadership development for school administrators, or curriculum development and instructional resources for educators.

The pending settlement still needs final court approval, so schools aren’t likely to begin receiving benefits until 2004 at the earliest.

Needy schools eventually would benefit, but the settlement would mainly affect Florida residents, providing up to $202 million in vouchers for people to buy computers and related products. When any of those vouchers go unclaimed, the company said, Microsoft would donate half of the unclaimed vouchers to Florida public schools.

The settlement—which is similar to a deal Microsoft struck with California in January—will resolve a lawsuit filed in a Florida circuit court in Miami claiming Microsoft violated a state law against unfair trade practices in the manner it sold operating system and applications software.

Class action participants who purchased the Microsoft operating system, productivity suite, spreadsheet, or word processing software between Nov. 16, 1995, and Dec. 31, 2002, would be eligible for vouchers to purchase computer hardware and software from any manufacturer—including systems running on the Macintosh platform from rival Apple Computer.

To keep the focus on underserved students, only public K-12 schools where 50 percent or more of the student body participate in free and reduced-price lunch programs would be eligible. Microsoft didn’t say when the vouchers would expire if not used.

Despite the tentative settlement’s limitations, Microsoft estimated the deal would reach more than 695,000 students in more than 1,600 schools and 40 districts—or roughly one-third of all students throughout the state.

Bill Piotrowski, executive director of technology and information services for Leon District Schools in Tallahassee, Fla., said the pending settlement is “great news for schools all across Florida.”

“Given the tough budget environment, the timing is particularly helpful,” he said in a statement. “This program will provide badly needed resources for the schools that need it most and help bridge the digital divide for those students.”

The relief won’t be immediate, however. The court has set a hearing for Nov. 24 for final approval of the settlement.

The deal is similar to a settlement Microsoft reached with California in January. There, schools will be able to claim two-thirds of any unclaimed portion of the $1.1 billion in technology vouchers that state officials negotiated with the company.

At the time, Microsoft said it expected the California settlement would benefit more than 13 million consumers and 3 million children in 4,700 schools. (See “California schools to benefit from $1.1 billion Microsoft settlement,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=4196.)

Although only half of the unclaimed funds in Florida would go to schools, “we believe that the settlement agreement reached with the Florida plaintiffs is more than fair,” said David Driftmier, director of Microsoft’s Educations Solutions Group.

The company currently is involved in talks with at least 14 other states and the District of Columbia, though it refused to comment about when and where future settlements might occur.

The private antitrust lawsuits are separate from a case Microsoft settled last year with the Justice Department and several states.

Last year, Microsoft lost its bid to settle dozens of private antitrust lawsuits by donating $1 billion worth of computers and software to the nation’s poorest public schools.

U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz in Baltimore ruled that proposal was unacceptable, because it would give the software giant an unfair advantage over its competitors.

Links:

Microsoft Corp.
http://www.microsoft.com

Florida Department of Education
http://www.flboe.org