Up to $7,000 per award for exemplary high school music programs

Just as the GRAMMY Award recognizes excellence in recording, the GRAMMY Signature Schools program honors top public high school music programs, as well as those that use creative means to successfully address challenging circumstances. All public high schools nationwide have the opportunity to apply for consideration. Forty GRAMMY Signature Schools each will receive a cash award ranging from $1,000 to $7,000. Up to three additional “needs-based” Special Awards will be granted $1,000 to $5,000 each.

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Supreme Court to revisit COPA

The Supreme Court agreed Oct. 14 to revisit the thorny question of how to protect children from explicit material on the internet without resorting to unconstitutional censorship.

The case asks whether, in the name of children, Congress wants to restrict too much material that adults have the right to see or buy. On a more practical level, the court will decide whether the government can require some form of an adults-only screening system to ensure that children cannot see material deemed harmful to them.

This is the second time in as many years that the high court has reviewed an internet pornography law passed by Congress in 1998 but never enforced.

The American Civil Liberties Union, representing booksellers, artists, operators of explicit web sites, and others, challenged the Child Online Protection Act as an unconstitutional damper on free speech.

The Bush administration appealed to the high court, arguing that children are “unprotected from the harmful effects of the enormous amount of pornography on the World Wide Web.”

The law, known by the acronym COPA, is a reasonable solution to the proliferation of online pornography, Solicitor General Theodore Olson told the court. The law targets commercial pornographers, he said.

The ACLU replied that the law could make criminals of many people who use the internet for legitimate, often health-related reasons. Those who operate web sites about gynecology and safe sex could be covered, as could Mitch Tepper, who posts explicit how-to sexual advice for disabled people, the ACLU claimed.

Olson said the main target is commercial pornographers who use sexually explicit “teasers” to lure customers.

The free teasers are available to nearly anyone surfing the internet, children and adults alike. The pictures sometimes appear even when computer users are not seeking out pornography. The teasers typically lead potential customers to a web site that may require payment and age verification.

COPA could mean six months in jail and $50,000 in fines for first-time violators and additional fines for repeat offenders. It is on hold pending court challenges.

A federal appeals court has twice struck down the law, most recently and conclusively in March with a ruling that the law is riddled with problems that make it “constitutionally infirm.”

Previously, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled the law unconstitutional on grounds that it allowed internet content to be judged by “contemporary community standards.”

The ACLU and other opponents of the law said that was a meaningless or risky standard to apply to the internet, which is available equally to the most conservative town or household and the most liberal.

The notion of what is acceptable can shift, and it would effectively give a veto to the most conservative dot on the U.S. map, the law’s opponents argued.

In its first crack at COPA, the Supreme Court looked only at the standards question. In a splintered ruling last year, the high court delivered a partial victory to the government by ruling that the evaluation standard alone did not make the law unconstitutional.

The justices then sent the case back for a fuller examination of the other free speech objections raised by the ACLU.

Another law, the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), requires schools and libraries receiving federal funding for computers and internet access to use “technology protection measures” such as filtering software to shield kids from harmful material online.

CIPA, which took effect in 2001, was upheld by the Supreme Court earlier this year (see “High court upholds web filtering law,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showstory.cfm?ArticleID=4473). Although filtering software can block access to some constitutionally protected material, CIPA passes muster because adults in charge can disable the technology whenever they deem appropriate, the court ruled.

The COPA case is Ashcroft v. ACLU, 03-218.

Links:

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

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Cook up a fun and educational project for students with the “Kid Inventor Challenge”

Here’s a chance for students to flex their mental muscles and have fun in the process. The 2003 Kid Inventor Challenge, sponsored by Wild Planet Toys, gives contestants a chance to have one of their own ideas turned into a real toy. To enter, students first must log onto the web site and download the entry form. Then, they send a drawing of their design and a description of the toy to the company, which selects the winners. One hundred winners will become Wild Planet toy consultants for one year-and one of the top 10 winners will earn the honor of having his or her idea turned into a real toy, collecting royalty checks for every unit sold for the life of the product. For teachers, the web site provides a two- to four-day curriculum intended to introduce students to the toy design process. The curriculum incorporates such skills as creative writing, problem solving, the scientific method, and more.

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eSN Special Feature: Voice over IP: Your call

Call it more than just the latest technology trend: A growing number of school systems nationwide are tapping into voice-over-internet-protocol (VoIP) technology to reap what could add up to substantial long-term savings on their telecommunications systems.

Providing each teacher with a traditional phone line from a telecommunications company is costly–about $30 a month per line, per teacher. But many school districts have successfully reduced this extra cost by operating their telephone system in house over their high-speed data networks.

The Appleton Area School District in Wisconsin–which is still in the process of deploying a VoIP system from Mitel Corp.–will downsize its phone network from 900 analog phone lines to 300.

“That’s a cost savings right there of over $300,000 a year,” said Jim Hawbaker, Appleton’s director of information technology. He figures these savings will pay back the system’s $1.3 million installation cost within four years.

With VoIP in place, the district can affordably provide a telephone in each classroom, voice mail for each teacher, caller ID, an emergency speaker in each classroom, conference calling, three-way conference calling, and more. “Those are things that we did not have previously,” Hawbaker said.

VoIP technology is not appealing to every school district, however. Even with the promised cost savings, some say its reliability and regulations are still too immature to warrant a switch.

“I have a voice system that works very well and works everyday, and I’m just not willing to change,” said Andrew Berning, chief technology officer of the Carrollton Farmers Branch Independent School District in Texas, who has been monitoring the developments of VoIP closely.

Before considering a VoIP system, “I would like the technology to become ripe and the standards to become better,” Berning said.

So what should you make of VoIP? Is it ready for deployment? Is it right for your schools? Those are questions this article is about to address.

Reliability

One concern about VoIP systems is that if the data network fails, the entire phone system goes with it.

“If your data network goes down or just bogs down, you’ll basically loose your phone service,” said Gary Collins, director of public sectors for Avaya Inc., who recommends that school districts avoid switching 100 percent to VoIP phone systems.

“If you have a good-quality network … VoIP will work. But still, a traditional phone system is going to be more reliable than a voice network,” Collins said. “We can do pure VoIP if that’s what a customer wants to do, but I would never recommend it to a customer.”

Like any computer network, VoIP systems also are susceptible to viruses. “The majority of VoIP servers are Windows-based, and if a virus gets in your network and your IP server is on your network, then it’ll take out your phone system as well,” Collins said.

However, schools can and should put in place redundancy plans to ensure this doesn’t happen.

Clark County School District in Las Vegas hired a major engineering company to design a reliable, converged $70 million network that would deliver distance education, educational applications, video streaming, VoIP, and school surveillance-camera images over the same network.

The No. 1 condition of the project was that if one component failed, it couldn’t take down the whole network, said Philip Brody, the district’s chief technology officer.

“Data people can tolerate the router being down for an hour, but with voice [traffic] you can’t tolerate [a disruption],” said Don Dietrich, vice president of Dietrich Lockard Group Inc., the firm hired by Clark County to evaluate alternative VoIP technologies.

Clark County, the nation’s sixth largest and fastest growing school district, has deployed Alcatel’s VoIP technology at 49 of its 289 schools so far.

“Our board wanted a phone in every classroom. With 15,000 classrooms, that’s a lot of phones,” Brody said, but “it’s been working pretty solidly for us.”

Packet loss

Another concern is packet loss. When data, video, or voice feeds are transmitted across a network, they are broken up into small packets of information and reassembled at the destination. When a network slows or fails, some packets inevitably get lost and never arrive. With voice traffic, the end result is a choppy or clipped-sounding conversation.

Technology improvements and better bandwidth management do compensate for this, however.

“No longer is there really any packet loss,” said Thomas Patchin, Sprint Corp.’s director of sales for vertical markets. Sprint has publicly announced about 15 to 20 school systems that use its VoIP technology.

Paul Butcher, chief executive of Mitel Networks Inc., which has deployed VoIP solutions in about 100 school districts, agrees. “Where you start losing packets is when you start routing traffic over the internet,” Butcher said. “Most schools aren’t routing their traffic over the internet, they’re routing over a wide area network.”

Packet technology does cause VoIP to be incompatible with fax service and Telecommunications Devices for the Deaf (TDD), which schools are required to support according to the equal-access laws of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“It is true that voice over IP can cause issues with TDD systems,” said Dorothy Lockard, president of Dietrich Lockard Group. “TDDs have such small pieces of information that when you drop parts of them, you lose major parts of the conversation.”

Lockard said companies have “added software that rebuilds the conversation when it gets there, but a fax machine or TDD can’t interpret that.”

Again, there are alternative ways to compensate for this. The most common is to maintain some analog, copper telephone lines for fax service, TDDs, fire alarms, elevators, and other safety measures. A district also could route incoming faxes to a server environment instead of a fax machine. Faxes then would be eMailed to the recipient instead of printed.

Other concerns

The upfront cost of VoIP systems can be high, and there still are ongoing costs such as annual subscription fees for the server-based software that provides voice mail.

“Once you’ve decide to become your own phone system, you have the cost of maintaining it,” Hawbaker said.

Installing VoIP is also a long, technical, and sometimes painful process. Once infrastructure and redundancy plans are in place, Hawbaker said, IT administrators still need to tweak the packet size and get comfortable with the Ethernet switching to work out the bugs–like calls that echo and messages that cut off.

Plus, IP phones–especially cordless ones–have limited selection and functionality, Hawbaker added.

Finally, there are regulatory issues that need to be addressed. As the distinction between voice and data communication vanishes, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and state regulators are mulling whether VoIP services should be subject to the same fees and regulations as traditional telecommunications services–including contributions to the federal Universal Service Fund that pays for eRate discounts and other benefits.

The FCC also must decide whether–and how–providers of VoIP telephone service should interact with public safety networks.

The FCC has yet to decide whether VoIP service is a telecommunications service or an unregulated information service. Until this issue is resolved, local and long-distance VoIP service is not eligible for eRate discounts–though the equipment necessary to deliver VoIP service throughout a district is eligible.

Potential benefits

In the long run, proponents of the technology say, VoIP can help school districts offer a more robust telephone service for less money.

“Any district with size and multiple locations is trying to find ways to squeeze more out of its operational dollars,” Patchin said. “I think over time you’ll see most districts going to this technology–[maybe] over the next three to five years.”

VoIP is another way to leverage the investment from eRate discounts by expanding the usefulness of high-speed networks to include multiple functions, including data, video streaming, videoconferencing, and voice traffic.

“Obviously, you’re going to save money, because you have one infrastructure instead of two,” Butcher said.

Also, reducing the number of different phone systems used within a district and standardizing onto a single system helps make repairs faster and easier.

“We had 300 separate systems. With [VoIP], we now have one large system,” Brody said. Maintenance and repairs also can be done remotely from a central location, instead of driving to every school building. The transition between a district’s voice network and the public network is transparent. Calls do not experience any degradation, because they are translated to an analog signal as soon as they enter the public network.

In addition to cost savings, VoIP offers schools a slew of new features ideally suited to education needs.

For example, parents can call an automated attendant to find out if their child has arrived at school, and students can hear a summary of their homework assignments.

Users can send a single voice-mail message to an entire group. For example, English teachers working on textbook committee can record their text choices in a voice-mail message and send them to a single distribution list. “Instead of calling eight different schools, you can use a single distribution list, and that voice mail will find its way to the voice boxes across all those different schools,” said Lockard.

Phone systems can be programmed at each school to ring only during recess, lunch, and after-school hours, so outsiders can’t call into a classroom and disturb class time.

“Those are services you would not get if you were using the public utility phone system,” Dietrich said.

VoIP systems offer other conveniences, too, such as automatically reporting errors and updating the electronic phone book used by the operator, or the district’s dial-by-name directory. In addition, every classroom can call 911 directly.

Weighing the balance

Educators remain divided on whether VoIP is ready for widespread deployment.

“VoIP is a very solid solution,” Hawbaker said. “We didn’t choose to do VoIP because we had money to waste; we chose it because it’s an economic solution to reduce costs.”

If a district spends a lot of money on local calls and has more than 100 phones, it should consider VoIP, he said: “You have to weigh the balance.”

So far, 26 of Appleton’s 28 school buildings use VoIP for their telephone service. The installation, which has taken more than a year, involves providing adequate wiring and electricity, as well as planning for 911 compliance. “We have to make sure all of those requirements are in place before we kick the system into [gear] at those locations,” Hawbaker said.

Schools shouldn’t be intimated by VoIP, proponents say. “It’s gone well beyond a hobbyist, leading-edge type of deployment,” Butcher said.

But others are more cautious.

“For a school district, I don’t think a pure, 100-percent VoIP solution is the way to go & The technology is not quite there yet,” Collins said.

“Is it ready for prime time? Yes. Is it all things to all people? No,” Patchin said.

If you do decide to go with a VoIP solution, choosing the right vendor is a critical decision, Patchin said. Look for a business partner that is experienced, understands the installation and the customer’s needs, and knows the certain tricks and nuisances of each product and component.

Links:

Appleton Area School District
http://www.aasd.k12.wi.us

Clark County School District
http://www.ccsd.net

Carrollton Farmers Branch Independent School District
http://www.cfbisd.edu

Alcatel
http://www.alcatel.com

Avaya Inc.
http://www.avaya.com

Dietrich Lockard Group
http://www.dietrichlockard.com

Mitel Corp.
http://www.mitel.com

Sprint Corp.
http://www.sprint.com/education

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Funding fights hammer virtual schools

According to education analysts, the number of students attending school in a completely online environment has grown exponentially in the past few years. Despite a growing acceptance of virtual education as a viable means of schooling, however, many states are still struggling with questions such as how much to fund these projects, who should provide the instruction–and who should foot the bill.

In just the past few weeks, for example, teachers unions in Minnesota and Wisconsin have sued to block online charter schools from operating in those states; operators of an online school in Idaho have petitioned the state for more funding, saying the per-pupil expenditure that Idaho allows for virtual schooling is inadequate; and Florida’s top financial officer is examining the state’s contract with two companies running virtual schools in the Sunshine State for possible violations of state law.

In all of these cases, the schools in question are partnerships between public K-12 school systems and private, for-profit virtual schooling companies. Education observers say it’s the idea these companies are profiting from public tax dollars–and siphoning them from brick-and-mortar schools in the process–that is the real issue.

Competition for funds

In Minnesota, the state’s teachers union filed a lawsuit Oct. 9 to shut down the Minnesota Virtual Academy, an online charter school operated by the Houston, Minn., school district. The lawsuit contends that the school violates state law because it relies on parents instead of teachers to deliver day-to-day instruction. But observers say the underlying reason for the lawsuit is the belief by the school’s critics that it amounts to a public subsidy for home schooling.

The academy has attracted such strong interest, largely from home schoolers, that it has had to turn away hundreds of students for lack of funds. It offers a curriculum directed by K12 Inc., a Virginia-based company founded by former U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett, author of the “Book of Virtues.”

Coursework is directed by mail or online, and the academy’s web site notes that “responsible adults (usually parents) guide students through their daily coursework using the K12 curriculum.”

The lawsuit argues that this arrangement violates the state’s online school law, which requires that licensed teachers “must assemble and deliver instruction” to students. But Houston Superintendent Kim Ross said 10 academy teachers are available to help guide instruction and respond to parent inquiries.

The lawsuit “is diminishing the work of teachers who are employed by Minnesota Virtual Academy,” she told the St. Paul Pioneer Press for an Oct. 10 story. “It fails to recognize our licensed teachers and the quality of service they provide.”

Skeptics say the lawsuit has more to do with competition for funding than it does with the quality of instruction.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Hopkins and Burnsville, Minn., school districts. Officials there say they’ve been hobbled in their own attempts to start or expand online programs–with instruction to be provided by certified teachers via eMail and chat rooms–because the Virtual Academy has consumed much of the state’s budget for virtual schools.

Minnesota lawmakers set aside $1 million to pay for public school online opportunities for those who were not previously enrolled in public school.

Union president Judy Schaubach said her organization isn’t opposed to the idea of online schools. “There are a lot of different ways to do this, and it is being done right in a lot of cases,” she said.

But she describes Houston’s program as, in essence, a public subsidy for home schooling. “Is it public education, or are we funding home schooling?” she asked rhetorically. “…What we are talking about is, what is the definition of public education?”

Using public tax money to educate home-schooled students via the internet is also the reason Florida’s top financial officer is examining the state’s contract with two companies running virtual schools for 1,000 Florida students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

The K-8 virtual school pilot projects–which officials hoped would save the state $700,000–are being reviewed as part of a broader investigation into Florida’s school voucher programs, the Palm Beach Post reported Sept. 23.

State lawmakers this spring had provided $4.8 million for the two pilot projects, but limited enrollment to students who had attended public school last year.

However, the contracts the education department awarded to Connections Academy, a division of Sylvan Learning Systems, and Florida Virtual Academy, another K12 venture, this summer allow the companies to sign up students in kindergarten and first grade who had not been enrolled in public schools last year.

The schools get $4,800 per student from the state, about $700 less than the average amount the state is spending this year on a student in a traditional school.

If all 1,000 students enrolled in the virtual schools transferred out of a public school, the state would save the difference of approximately $700,000. But if the state is instead spending $4,800 on students who would not otherwise have been enrolled in a public school, the pilot projects could end up costing the state even more money.

The department’s decision is reasonable and legal, spokeswoman Frances Marine said. By specifically creating a K-8 program, lawmakers meant for kindergarteners and some first graders without prior public school enrollment to qualify.

“Since we don’t have compulsory schooling in Florida until age six, there’s no way anyone could qualify for kindergarten or first grade otherwise,” Marine told the Palm Beach Post. “We believe our interpretation is correct, but we look forward to working with the legislature next spring on the language.”

In a statement, Florida Education Secretary Jim Horne said he would work to find funding through an alternate source for those kindergarteners and first graders already enrolled in the program.

“While I have no desire to carry out a pilot program that is contrary to the intent of my former Senate colleagues, my first concern is for the children enrolled in the program,” he stated. “Because of concerns about disrupting the education of currently enrolled students, I have decided to fund the kindergarten and first grade students, who will not be funded from the pilot project appropriation, from an alternate source. In addition, I will be asking the legislature during this upcoming session to rectify the anomaly of a K-8 educational program that does not fund kindergarten enrollment.”

How much is enough?

Minnesota isn’t the only state where virtual schools are being challenged now in court.

The Minnesota lawsuit follows similar efforts by the Wisconsin teacher’s union to shut down two virtual schools in that state. After a state circuit judge earlier this year dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Wisconsin Education Association Council questioning the legality of Wisconsin Connections Academy–a 300-student virtual school chartered by the Appleton, Wis., School District and run by Connections Academy–the union appealed.

But even before a decision on the appeal has been rendered, the union is proceeding with a second lawsuit against the Wisconsin Virtual School, another K12 venture chartered by the Northern Ozaukee School District.

In both lawsuits, the union claims these for-profit companies will reap huge profits from state money granted for per-pupil expenditures. These expenditures were calculated to include many services not provided under the virtual model, the union says, including funds for teacher’s aides, janitors, nurses, school psychologists, and extra-curricular activities. (See “Teachers’ union challenges legality of Wisconsin cyber school,” “http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=3930.)

According to Lucy Brown, an attorney representing the union, the organization claims that online schools can be operated for significantly less money than traditional brick-and-mortar schools–and that open-enrollment money, which comes at a premium, especially during a tough budget year, should be kept in the hands of school districts and not given away to outsiders who stand to make a profit.

Wisconsin teachers union officials are not alone in the belief that virtual schools can operate on a much lower budget than brick-and-mortar schools. The Idaho State Board of Education believes it, too. And the board is now reassessing the financial support Idaho is providing to computer-based charter schools amid a campaign put on by one such school to more than double the cash support taxpayers provide.

“Whether they should get full funding, probably not,” State Board member Karen McGee of Pocatello said. “But whether they should get more than they’re getting, they probably should.”

The Idaho Virtual Academy, which was chartered by the Butte County School District, contends it should get $2.5 million more in state support than it received during its first year of operation, the 2002-03 school year.

Officials said they received about $2,400 for each student this past year compared with what they said was $5,000 in per-student support for traditional schools.

The school claimed just under 1,000 students in kindergarten through fifth grade last year. Officials said students lived in 38 of Idaho’s 44 counties. The operation said it employed 23 certified teachers around the state to work with parents as they taught their children with curriculum provided by K12 Inc.

The state Department of Education maintains that the school has received all the money it is entitled to under state and federal law.

Spokeswoman Allison Westfall said the school appears to be affected by financing limitations typically faced by charter schools in their first year, because Idaho law requires that some funds be distributed based on information from the prior year.

But Idaho Virtual Academy Board Chairman David Gencarella said the charter is not receiving enough cash to maintain its operation.

“We’re OK for next year, but there’s no further commitment beyond 2003-04,” Gencarella said.

The virtual academy’s attorney, Brian Julian, said that although no buildings are being maintained, the school actually spends about as much per pupil as a traditional public school.

Students of the virtual academy are given computers and internet access along with other educational materials, he said, and academy teachers make personal visits all over the state to assist special education students.

“I think the state really should decide if Idaho wants to have this kind of program and develop rules to apply to them,” Julian said.

The idea that online education costs less than traditional schooling is a myth, said Charles Zogby, senior vice president of education and policy for K12 Inc.

“Lawmakers in a lot of states think this can be done on the cheap,” said Zogby. Before joining K12, Zogby served as education commissioner for Pennsylvania, a pioneer of the virtual charter school movement.

“We operate at a cost 20 to 35 percent lower than a traditional school, but we have costs that traditional schools do not have,” Zogby said of K12. For example, to complete the state assessment in Pennsylvania, he said, K12 had to rent 40 sites and hire staff to oversee the exam.

A funding model that works

In Florida, Connections Academy and Florida Virtual Academy have to compete with the Florida Virtual School (FLVS) for middle-school students. Primarily a supplementary education program (though it does supply some students’ entire education), FLVS serves as a national model for online instruction.

A small-scale experiment when it launched in 1997 with 77 students, FLVS today boasts an enrollment of more than 10,000 and climbing. To accommodate a growing number of students, the school has moved this year from a separate line item on the state’s budget to inclusion in the statewide funding formula for K-12 instruction.

As a start-up initiative, the line-item funding worked well for FLVS, said Executive Director Julie Young, because it gave the school a safe haven within the budget to establish itself without having to compete with more traditional institutions for funds.

But after experiencing exponential growth in its first five years of operation, FLVS officials realized the school was growing beyond its means.

Looking to accommodate additional students and whittle away at a waiting list of more than 2,500 names, Young–in association with Gov. Jeb Bush–recommended that the school move toward a revised funding model. Beginning this year, when a student enrolls in a class through FLVS, the school receives funding for what amounts to one-sixth of the total full-time equivalency for that student.

Unlike traditional schools, FLVS does not receive funding for a number of expenses, including transportation and capital improvements, among others. However, it does receive funding for summer school and a seventh-period class–two benefits no longer available to brick-and-mortar schools.

Young sees the move as a step in the right direction for virtual education programs. Still, she hopes one day to move toward a funding formula designed specifically for online schools.

State lawmakers “are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole by taking current [funding] models and attaching them to virtual schools,” she said. “The approach to virtual education should be different than traditional education.”

Despite now competing with traditional schools for state funding, FLVS hasn’t experienced any friction so far. Maybe this is because FLVS is primarily a supplemental instructional program, or maybe it’s because the school already is well respected among the state’s educators. In any case, lawmakers nationwide will be watching what happens in Florida and elsewhere as they struggle with how best to fund virtual schools in their own states.

Links:

K12 Inc.
http://www.k12.com

Connections Academy
http://www.connectionsacademy.com

Florida Virtual School
http://www.flvs.net

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Federal ed-tech funding in trouble for 2004

Four technology-specific initiatives totaling $134 million are among the many education programs still at risk as House and Senate lawmakers try to resolve their differences over 2004 spending.

Three of these four programs were preserved in the Senate’s version of the education spending bill but were cut in the House version, which more closely follows President Bush’s 2004 budget request.

The fourth program, Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology (PT3)–a $62.5 million effort that promotes partnerships between colleges of education and K-12 schools to help new teachers integrate technology into their instruction–appears in neither the House nor the Senate appropriations bills.

Losing PT3 would deal a blow to schools across the country, many of which have struggled to recruit high-quality teachers who come to the classroom prepared to integrate technology into the curriculum, said Don Knezek, chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).

The Bush administration says PT3 is unnecessary because the federal Improving Teacher Quality program already provides nearly $3 billion to support teacher preparation and professional development initiatives.

But Knezek, who served as director of ISTE’s National Center for Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology before being named chief executive of ISTE, said he wasn’t concerned so much about the loss of the funding itself as he was about the loss of ideals that mostly likely would result from the absence of federal leadership on this topic.

“K-12 education is a system,” he said. “We need to take a systematic approach, and that includes recruiting highly qualified teachers who know how to use technology.”

Still, ed-tech lobbyists have not given up on the program entirely. In September, the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) circulated an Action Alert to its members hoping to drum up enough support to revive PT3 during the negotiations process.

It isn’t just PT3 that is in trouble. Keith Krueger, executive director of CoSN, said the situation is indicative of funding shortages across the board.

“Overall funding levels [for school technology] are not growing,” Krueger said. “For the most part, [Congress is] not even funding these programs up to their authorization levels.”

At a time when nearly every state and district faces budget cuts of historic proportions, now is not the time for the federal government to shrink from its commitment to educational technology, he said.

Of the two overall education spending bills in negotiation at press time, the Senate’s version is the more supportive of technology. Passed by the Senate in September, it would provide funding at current-year, or slightly lower, levels for a number of programs the House and the Bush administration would prefer to cut.

For instance, the Senate bill preserves the Community Technology Centers program, an initiative to help build computer centers in low-income areas, at $20 million in 2004. Although that’s more than a third less than the $32 million the program received in 2003, it’s still better than the preference in the House, where lawmakers voted to cut the program.

The same can be said for the Star Schools initiative, which supports the development of telecommunications services and audio-visual equipment in underserved schools. Last year, the program received $27.5 million. This year, however, the Senate reduced support to $20.5 million, while the House cut its funding entirely.

In the case of Ready to Teach, which works with public broadcasters to provide educational and professional development resources to schools, Senate lawmakers increased funding to $14.4 million, up from $12 million last year, while the House again sided with President Bush and voted to extinguish the program.

On the bright side, both chambers agreed to fund the Regional Technology in Education Consortia, or RTECs, at $10 million–the same amount as last year. Bush’s budget proposed the elimination of this program as well.

Funding for the Education Technology Block Grant program–now the main source of federal funding for school technology–would remain steady for the third year in a row, at $695 million in both versions of the education spending bill.

But “any time you level-fund a program, you’re essentially giving it a cut, because you’re not accounting for inflation,” said Mary Kusler, legislative specialist for the American Association of School Administrators.

In defense of proposed cuts to technology-specific programs, the Bush administration argues that the president’s 2004 budget actually calls for a $2.4 billion increase in overall education funding.

In fact, the president’s $2.23 trillion budget for fiscal year 2004 provides $53 billion to the Education Department (ED) specifically–the “largest dollar increase for any domestic agency,” according to Education Secretary Rod Paige.

For the most part, those increases are at best indirectly related to technology. For instance, Bush has asked for nearly $1 billion more in Title I funds, as well as another $1 billion for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which Congress hopes to reauthorize later in the year. The administration also has requested an additional $1.9 billion increase for Pell Grants to help low-income students afford college.

But when it comes to ed-tech funding, activists say, this has been a year of lowered expectations.

“From the technology perspective specifically, people are not expecting to see much,” Kusler said.

The Bush administration says the increased flexibility of NCLB means school districts can take funds earmarked for other purposes and apply them toward technology, if local school leaders so choose. But ed-tech advocates at CoSN and ISTE question whether the federal government is providing enough support to ensure that schools are up to the task at hand, which includes meeting the provisions of the new federal law.

When asked whether the government has provided enough resources for schools to meet the challenges of NCLB, ISTE’s Knezek said there’s no question the funds fall well short of the need. “Go into any Title I school and look at what it truly would take,” he said. “[Lawmakers are] not even coming close.”

In whatever way the debate shakes out, lawmakers no doubt will try to avoid the legislative gridlock that left ED and other federal agencies without a 2003 budget until February. But even that might prove difficult, because Congress will be forced to hammer out a consensus on domestic spending while working simultaneously to come to terms on an $87 billion supplemental funding request to help rebuild Baghdad and other Iraqi cities still reeling in the wake of war.

Washington’s fiscal 2004 officially began Oct. 1, but federal operations are supported by resolutions continuing the funding of the previous fiscal year until the new budget becomes law.

Links:

Consortium for School Networking
http://www.cosn.org

International Society for Technology in Education
http://www.iste.org

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

American Association for School Administrators
http://www.aasa.org

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Schools get new tools to help with bomb threats

School districts and public safety agencies across the nation will receive a new package of tools to help handle school bomb threats, federal officials announced Oct. 7.

The centerpiece of the effort is a compact disc with information about such topics as preventing and planning for bomb threats, providing training to staff, and responding to explosions. The program also features a web site, ThreatPlan.org, and reference cards to help schools customize their plans.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) and the U.S. Department of Education (ED) are partners in the project. Leaders of those agencies say off-the-shelf plans for responding to bomb threats are not effective, because school districts vary widely in populations, campuses, and resources.

“Unfortunately, we know it is almost inevitable that schools will receive bomb threats and will need a plan for dealing with them,” said ATF Acting Director Bradley Buckles. “In today’s world, we need to be prepared for all potentially dangerous situations, even when they turn out to be false alarms.”

Even when no bombs are found, as is usually the case, threats cause a climate of fear and force schools to contend with lost class time, the ATF says.

The Bomb Threat CD-ROM is an intearctive planning tool for schools that includes staff training presentation and implementation resources. ATF will distribute the CD-ROM to state and local law enforcement and public safety agencies, and ED’s Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools will handle distribution to the country’s public and private school systems, officials said.

Links:

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives
http://www.atf.gov

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

ThreatPlan.org
http://www.threatplan.org

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Earn money for school stakeholders who eat at Uno’s Chicago Grill

Uno Chicago Grill offers a variety of programs that support school curriculum and help schools raise money. For the Uno fundraiser, schools distribute Uno Fundraising Tickets throughout their community and, for every person who dines at Uno’s and presents a ticket during the agreed time period, Uno will donate 20 percent of their check plus tax and tip to your organization. Through Uno School Awards, the restaurant offers certificates and free meal coupons that teachers can use as incentives to motivate students. Uno’s also throws Uno Pizza Maker Parties for elementary school classes. Students visit the restaurant, tour the kitchen, learn about cooking safely, and then make their own pizzas.

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Whet your appetite for professional development with these free streaming video resources

From the Annenberg Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting comes a new web-based professional development tool designed to give educators free, 24-hour access to more that 25 workshops and hours of streaming video. The materials are aimed at improving teaching skills in such subject areas as math, science, social studies, English, foreign languages, and the arts. Launched Sept. 1, the resource incorporates a variety of training materials for teachers, including streaming video clips, print guides, and web links. Using a high-speed broadband or satellite connection, educators who engage in these course offerings will be able to observe actual taped classroom sessions and listen to insightful reflections of practicing teachers. All courses are organized by discipline, topic, and grade level. The tool itself is an evolution of the partnership’s earlier professional development efforts, which previously required educators to sign up for scheduled courses and earn credits only while those courses were being offered. Under the new system, however, all of the courses and videotaped sessions are digitally stored and cataloged online, allowing educators to access them at any time and from anywhere, at their own convenience. Completion of the courses earns educators a Certificate of Participation that can be used locally for recertification and other professional credentials. Educators also have the option of receiving graduate credits through Colorado State University for a nominal fee.

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eSN Analysis: State laws unlikely to stop spam

California schools and other recipients of unsolicited bulk eMails in the Golden State would be able to sue spammers for up to $1,000 per message under a bill signed last month by outgoing Gov. Gray Davis. But experts say this latest anti-spam law and similar measures across the country stand little chance of reducing the number of junk messages clogging eMail in-boxes.

Even if the California law, scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, passes expected court challenges, it’s still unlikely to stem the flow of spam, according to legal and eMail experts.

“There are 36 states with active anti-spam legislation today, and the spam problem has not gone away,” said Scott Petry, vice president of products and engineering at the spam-blocking company Postini Inc.

Davis and the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Culver City), portrayed the legislation as an ironclad weapon in the war on spam.

“There are no loopholes, no way of getting around it,” proclaimed Murray, of the Los Angeles area. “We are confident that this is going to stop the billions we are losing to spam.”

Murray’s legislation cites a Ferris Research study that says spam will cost U.S. organizations more than $10 billion this year in lost productivity and additional equipment, manpower, and software. California’s share is estimated at $1.2 billion.

For schools that provide students with eMail accounts, the problem is particularly serious, because much of spam is offensive or pornographic in nature.

More than 80 percent of school-age children receive lewd, inappropriate, or potentially dangerous spam on a daily basis, according to a recent survey by internet security firm Symantec Corp. The survey underscores the need for parents, educators, and policy makers to find new ways to combat spam, which is a growing problem for all internet users.

California’s law, signed by Davis Sept. 23, would let internet service providers, the state’s attorney general, and spam recipients sue advertisers and spam senders who use misleading information in an eMail subject line, invalid reply addresses, or disguised paths of transmission. The limit for civil judgments against spammers is $1,000 per message or $1 million per incident.

Companies can send bulk messages only if recipients have given their permission, or if there’s an existing business relationship. In that case, the law requires that consumers must be able to opt out of future messages.

“California is sending a clear message to internet spammers: We will not allow you to litter the information superhighway with eMail trash,” the governor said.

But even though individuals could sue, experts say it would be a mistake for spam victims to count on such a windfall.

The problem is that the internet crosses state and national boundaries. Extradition from another state is unlikely in a civil case.

“If the spammer is offshore, how are we going to enforce that?” said Marten Nelson, director of business analysis and strategy at CipherTrust Inc., another anti-spam company. “Are we going to start chasing spammers around the world? I doubt it.”

Besides, the average eMail user isn’t likely to have the resources to investigate. And the state attorney general probably has more important crimes to worry about.

“We could have thousands or hundreds of thousands of spam police trying to go after spammers,” Nelson said. “The reality is that very few spammers will be caught, and it will end with big lawsuit costs.”

Some argue California’s law is far from the nation’s toughest. Virginia, for instance, recently enacted a law that includes prison sentences and asset forfeiture for spammers.

“We would much rather see other states pursue the Virginia course rather than the California course because we think criminal penalties–that is laws with real teeth in them–are going to have the best effect as far as deterring spammers,” said America Online spokesman Nicholas Graham.

Some question whether states should be battling spam at all.

“I don’t believe they have the power,” said Brad Templeton, chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and an expert on eMail issues. “Forget if you love or hate the law, it requires you to know in advance what state the person you are mailing is in, to learn the laws of that state … and obey them.”

Congress also is considering anti-spam measures, though it’s doubtful they’ll be able to reach bulk eMailers based outside the United States.

“Perhaps they’ll petition the U.N.,” Petry said.

Many eMail users still believe legislation is the answer. In a recent straw poll taken on the eSchool News web site, nearly two-thirds of readers–64 percent–said lawmakers should enact tough anti-spam measures to combat the problem.

A more effective solution is likely to involve a combination of laws, technological changes to the internet, and enforcement of policies, experts say. In fact, the Anti-Spam Research Group, a part of the Internet Engineering Task Force, is studying possible technological changes.

Links:

Sponsor of California law
http://democrats.sen.ca.gov/senator/murray

Electronic Frontier Foundation
http://www.eff.org

Anti-Spam Research Group
http://www.irtf.org/charters/asrg.html

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