Just as the fall buying season gets under way for school systems from coast to coast, a series of high-profile cases involving questionable school technology purchasing practices has highlighted the need for more training in recognizing unethical behavior. At a time of increased public scrutiny of how scarce education dollars are spent, such practices threaten to undermine the considerable gains made in school technology in the last decade, some observers say.

In the latest manifestation of a controversy that erupted two years ago in a suburb of Washington, D.C., two Philadelphia school district administrators are currently under investigation for possible ethics-policy violations. According to reports in the Philadelphia Inquirer published earlier this year, the administrators took a trip to South Africa in June 2004 and, five months later, agreed to a $926,000 no-bid contract with PLATO Learning Inc., the company that subsidized the trip.

The Philadelphia administrators aren’t the only ones to land in hot water over the trip. In November 2004, eSchool News reported that then-superintendent of Prince George’s County, Md., Public Schools, Andre Hornsby, found himself under similar scrutiny for taking the same trip in both 2003 and 2004 (see story: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=5385).

A school board panel cleared Hornsby in December 2004 of any wrongdoing regarding the trips, but he remains under investigation for possible wrongdoing involving the awarding of a no-bid contract to another company. PLATO’s chief executive at the time of the trips, John Murray, stepped down from his post in November 2004 amid the controversy, and PLATO since has discontinued them.

The Philly flap is just the latest in a long list of high-profile instances of questionable, unethical, or outright illegal activity involving school technology purchasing. In the past few years, numerous news accounts and investigative reports have laid out similar cases (see related story).

At one extreme are cases involving eRate funding. In these, technology vendors or consultants, for the most part, and school officials, to a far lesser degree, have faced criminal prosecution or civil action on fraud, bid-rigging, or other charges of anticompetitive crimes. At another end of the continuum, dealings between school and tech personnel have raised eyebrows and suggestions of conflict-of-interest. In the middle sits a host of other situations–some still under formal investigation, some simply under discussion–in which the conduct of people who sell technology to schools or the people who buy it is at issue.

“I don’t think it’s been helpful for anyone–not for companies and not for schools,” said Jon Bernstein, a Washington, D.C., legislative consultant whose clients include educational technology associations. “Everyone is being tarnished with the same brush, even though the vast majority of [educators and vendors] do abide by the law. And it’s looked at askance by legislators” when they’re asked to fund school technology programs, he added.

The steady stream of news stories reporting unethical and illegal activity aside, the people interviewed for this story said the ed-tech industry is not awash in wrongdoing. But they did say that, like other business officials, school administrators involved in technology purchasing need practice in understanding and recognizing unethical behavior and training in how to spot and resist high-pressure sales tactics. They also need help in comprehending the eRate’s considerable and complex requirements.

“It’s no excuse–but technology is a new frontier for many of us, and figuring how to slice it all is difficult,” said Lynn Beck, dean of the Benerd School of Education at University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., who has long studied ethics in school leadership. “It’s a new area that we in leadership programs in education need to attend to more explicitly and directly.”

Ethics litmus test

Although few people involved in these cases had been charged with any criminal wrongdoing as of press time, enough eyebrows were raised to spur inquiries into whether their conduct ran afoul of the law or just counter to good sense. According to ethics experts, such cases point out that school administrators need help in thinking through how potential behavior or actions might register on an ethics litmus test.

One of the best ways to keep everyone operating ethically and in compliance with law, they said, is to provide practice in what it means to be an ethical decision maker. For ed-tech administrators already on the job, that means training. Too often, though, these central-office administrators don’t get ethics training, because they don’t attend the sort of conferences that might feature ethics workshops, said Margaret Grogan, chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Missouri, Columbia. And even when they do, the instruction doesn’t always get specific.

“Can we invite [vendors] to dinner; can they invite us? Can they pay for alcohol? What is conflict of interest, and what does it really look like? In many cases, administrators are left using their own judgment, and that’s where some of them get into trouble,” Grogan said. “We need to get explicit.”

“We also need to teach strategies into how to deal with pressure, because we must not forget that these folks are under tremendous pressure,” Grogan said. Vendors “are good at putting on the pressure.”

Perhaps in response to the times, universities that prepare people to work in school administration are offering more ethics courses than they were 25 years ago. Lynn Beck, of the University of the Pacific, studied that question in 1998 and found that, of the 50 programs she considered, “most did address ethics in some way. But there is great variability.

“There is room for expanding definitions and clarifying issues to help practitioners on the ground think through things,” Beck said. “We have to see the ethical implications within something before we can begin to think ethically.”

Ethics codes also attempt to offer some guidance. Many school districts have them, as do national professional organizations. The Association of School Business Officials (ASBO), for example, in March released a code of ethics for its members, which include people who buy technology products and services for schools. Besides stating the obvious, such as the need to “obey all local, state, and national laws,” ASBO guidelines instruct members to “never use their position for personal gain,” to “avoid conflict-of-interest situations by not conducting business with a company or firm in which the official or any member of the official’s family has a vested interest,” and to “not accept gifts, free services, or anything of value for or because of any act performed or withheld.”

Do these codes help? “They’re not bad,” Beck said. “They do serve to articulate and focus and serve as reminders. But they’re not really enough, and they don’t capture the complexity of living and being in an ethical way.”

And they don’t necessarily capture the complexity of school systems, today, where contracting with the for-profit world is a way of life. “School folks are much more in the business of getting contracts simply because there is more to contract for today than in the chalkboard days,” said Grogan, formerly a co-director of the Center for the Study of Leadership and Ethics at the University of Virginia. “There are more opportunities at a lower level for people to get themselves into trouble now, and the stakes are higher.”

The stakes are, indeed, high. According to the most recent figures from market research firm Quality Education Data, U.S. schools spent nearly $6.38 billion on technology purchases in the 2004-2005 school year–or $139.26 for every student. Much of that funding has come from the eRate, which has dispersed about $9.2 billion to schools since 1998 and has enabled school districts nationwide to build technology programs for students that many acknowledge simply would not exist without those funds. But critics of the eRate say its requirements are difficult to comprehend and follow.

“A lot of information hasn’t been clear, and there has been so much confusion about what has to be done or not done,” said CoSN’s Krueger.

In addition, getting eRate funding involves reams of paperwork, school officials said, and considerable effort. “There is an enormous amount of paper-pushing,” said Robert Hamel, assistant to the superintendent in the Springfield (Mass.) Public Schools and a member of the Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials’ board of directors.

“It’s very rare that I don’t have a day where I’m submitting paperwork or responding to a query or contacting [USAC’s Schools and Libraries Division] in some form,” said Hamel, whose district, depending on the year and the project, has received anywhere between $2 million and $8 million in eRate funding.

This level of vigilance and response can overwhelm districts, especially those that have technology directors who wear several other hats within their school systems. According to several people interviewed for this story, school tech directors can be tempted to cede the complex eRate process to a consultant or a vendor. And some of those business people might not necessarily have the district’s best interests at heart.

“Many districts have relied on the expertise of outside resources, and that has led them unintentionally astray in what is appropriate and what is legal,” said Pat Renzulli, senior vice president of technology for the School District of Philadelphia, which has received about $240 million in eRate monies over the past nine years.

They can also get caught up in blue-sky promises. “If you don’t have strong leadership and a vendor walks in and says, ‘There’s this federal program with all this money, and I can get it for you and build you the greatest technology infrastructure you’ve ever seen’–there are few people who will turn that down,” said Bob Westall, the executive director of technology services for the Philadelphia schools.

Officials at USAC, the organization that administers the eRate program for the FCC, said they simply implement the application process that was “developed consistent with FCC rules.”

“We’re always looking to make the process as streamlined as possible and as easy to navigate as possible, provided it’s wholly consistent with FCC rules,” said USAC spokeswoman Irene Flannery.

But Flannery said USAC does offer applicants a “great deal of training and outreach” to help understand and complete the eRate process. For example, she said, USAC holds national and regional training workshops for school administrators. The company also maintains a web site and hotline that provide information and assistance. In addition, USAC officials visit schools and libraries all over the country–1,200 visits in the past 18 months, Flannery said–to offer help. “We provide information on the application process, we ask questions about their documentation and how they do competitive bidding. We look at the equipment they have and make sure it’s being used properly,” she said.

Growing pains

Just over a decade ago, the eRate was a dream, and school technology programs were in their infancy. Since then, a tremendous amount of money has gone into acquiring a tremendous amount of technology for schools. Some say the scope and the pace of making that transition, and the corresponding advent of a new and untested bureaucracy, was bound to stir up some unethical or unlawful activity.

“Most problems in the eRate happened in the first few years, when there really was something of a Wild West mentality by some vendors that this was a whole new pot of gold to seek,” Krueger said. “At the same time, some school officials didn’t necessarily take responsibility to do competitive bidding or what was needed.”

To be sure, the bad press has helped call attention to problems–both for businesses and schools–and force solutions. The hope within the education world, though, is that the stories, the investigations, and the court actions won’t ultimately overshadow the gains made in school technology and lead to waning support, especially for the eRate.

“There’s no way we would have networked without the eRate money,” said Springfield’s Hamel. Working with the eRate “might be a pain, but the fruits are well worth the pain.”

“If we were to lose the eRate,” Krueger said, “it would be a tremendous strike against preparing our kids for the future.”

Jo Anna Natale is a freelance education writer who lives in Clifton, Va.

Links:

University of the Pacific’s Benerd School of Education
http://www.uop.edu/education

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

University of Missouri, Columbia, Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis
http://elpa.coe.missouri.edu

Association of School Business Officials International
http://www.asbointl.org

ASBO’s “Professional Standards, Self-Assessments, and Code of Ethics”
http://asbointl.org/Recognition/index.asp?bid=1068

University of Virginia’s Center for the Study of Leadership and Ethics
http://curry.edschool.virginia.edu/centers/ethics

Universal Service Administrative Co.
http://www.universalservice.org