As House and Senate lawmakers return to Washington next month to reconvene the 109th Congress after their summer recess, the legislative agenda features several bills likely to affect how technology is used in schools.

Among the measures currently on Congress’s to-do list before year’s end are the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) of 2006, a controversial proposal intended to better protect children from the potential hazards of social-networking web sites such as MySpace.com; the most significant overhaul of telecommunications legislation in a decade, which has ramifications for the $2.25 billion-a-year eRate; and closure on the 2007 federal budget, which will decide the fate of the Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) block-grant program and other school-related spending.

One of the first bills likely to be revisited this fall in the Senate, DOPA (H.R. 5319) was under review by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation when lawmakers broke in August.

DOPA appeared on the fast track to approval before the congressional recess; the House approved it 410 to 15. Despite its quick and nearly unanimous approval in the House, however, the legislation drafted by Pennsylvania Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick, a Republican, has run into steep opposition from several ed-tech proponents. Its critics say the bill–which requires schools to block access to social-networking web sites as a prerequisite to receiving valuable eRate discounts–is overly broad, redundant, and likely would prohibit educators from fully embracing the internet as a tool for teaching and learning.

The proposal would force any school or library that receives government funding to block access to any web site that “allows users to create web pages or profiles that provide information about themselves and are available to other users, and offers a mechanism for communication with other users, such as a forum, chat room, eMail, or instant messenger.”

The rules would apply to all U.S. schools and libraries that receive funding through the eRate, the massive federal program that provides internet and telecommunications discounts to needy schools. The bill also seeks to limit access to personal networking web sites to people who are 18 or older.

Supporters of the bill, including Fitzpatrick, contend these resources expose students to objectionable materials available on the sites of other users. Pointing to recent news stories about sexual predators luring trusting teens on sites such as MySpace, they say such safeguards will help keep children from falling victim to the ever-present dangers of the internet.

“This legislation is the first of its kind to address the growing use of social-networking sites by sexual predators,” noted Fitzpatrick in July after a version of the legislation cleared the House. “Passage of the Deleting Online Predators Act demonstrates Congress’s commitment to safeguarding America’s families.”

Despite its purportedly good intentions, critics–such as the American Library Association (ALA), the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), and others–argue that DOPA likely would prohibit educators from using the internet to its full potential.

“Under DOPA, people who use library and school computers as their primary conduits to the internet will be unfairly blocked from accessing some of the web’s most powerful emerging technologies and learning applications,” said ALA President Leslie Burger in a statement about the bill.

Instead of banning outright use of such technologies in the classroom, critics of the bill say, a more reasonable approach would be for educators to teach students how to use these resources safely and responsibly, while leaving the decision whether to block access to these and other sites to local administrators.

“We know students fail to engage as fully in learning at school when they are denied the communication tools and channels they use regularly in the world outside of school,” said ISTE Chief Executive Officer Don Knezek. “We know, too, that students fail to develop, in school, safe and responsible patterns of technology use for the future when they are denied the opportunity to make decisions using judgment that will be required of them outside of school. H.R. 5319 forces a shortfall in student development by federal mandate.”

Budget battle

Upon their return to Capitol Hill, lawmakers also will resume negotiations on the 2007 federal budget. One of the focal points of that conversation is likely to be education, which President Bush has proposed cutting by nearly $3 billion in the coming year.

A portion of that reduction could come from the elimination of EETT, the primary source of federal funding for technology hardware, support, and training for schools. President Bush had asked Congress to eliminate the program entirely in FY ’07. Slashed from $696 million in 2004, to $496 million in 2005, EETT has been on the chopping block each of the last three years but has been spared repeatedly by Congress during negotiations. It received $272 million from lawmakers in 2006.

Ed-tech advocates had reason to hope the same pattern might hold true this year after the Senate appropriations subcommittee that makes recommendations on education spending approved level funding for the program in 2007. The House voted earlier this year to eliminate EETT, per the president’s request. By voting to preserve EETT, Senate lawmakers left the door open for the program to survive next year.

“I am pleased that the Senate has made educational technology a funding priority in the FY ’07 … education spending bill,” said G. Thomas Houlihan, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “However, there is still much work to do to ensure that this important program is sustained and receives the resources necessary to continue to close the achievement gap.”

Added Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association: “[NSBA] has heard dozens of compelling stories from its members about the importance of EETT funds in helping to close the achievement gap. It is essential in this rapidly changing world marketplace that all U.S. students be equipped with the 21st-century skills they need to be competitive. The use of technology in today’s schools is no longer an option, but an essential tool in the delivery of instruction.”

The spending bill passed by the Senate subcommittee allocates $55.8 billion for total discretionary education spending in 2007–nearly $2 billion less than in 2006, but more than $1 billion more than Bush had proposed in his 2007 budget.

Altogether, the bill includes more than $530 million for programs intended to promote American competitiveness globally. This includes $195 million for Math and Science Partnerships, $40 million for Advanced Placement programs, $272 million for EETT, and $26.2 million for Foreign Language Assistance programs. Here are the amounts proposed by the Senate subcommittee for some other discretionary grant programs in 2007:

  • Title I: $12.713 billion (level funding), same as the House version.

  • School Improvement Grants: $100 million, only half of what the House has proposed.

  • Reading programs: $1.1 billion for programs that are designed to ensure all children are reading by the end of third grade, and a $35 million program to help teenagers struggling to read. These figures are the same as what the House has proposed.

  • Teacher Quality State Grants: $2.747 billion, $160 million more than the House has proposed but $60 million short of 2006 funding.

  • Rural Education: $168.9 million (level funding), same as the House version.

  • Special Education Grants to States: $10.583 billion, the same as the FY06 level. The House has proposed a $150 million increase over 2006 funding.

  • Pell Grants: $12.607 billion, which supports a maximum grant of $4,050, the same as in 2006. The House has proposed $13 billion and a maximum grant of $4,150.

Despite encouraging news from the Senate subcommittee, the fate of EETT and many other programs is by no means secure. The full Senate still must vote on the education spending bill, and then it will go to a conference committee of House and Senate lawmakers, who must hash out any differences between versions approved in the two chambers. Congress hasn’t given any indication of when this will happen, but budget watchers say it’s unlikely anything will happen until after the midterm elections in November.

Telecommunications on tap

Telecommunications is another issue likely to affect schools as Congress returns; on tap is the largest single overhaul of national telecommunications legislation in a decade.

A bill before the Senate aims to increase competition for delivering cable TV and other video and broadband services to local markets, thereby driving down prices for consumers. But critics of the legislation fear it does too little to ensure these services will be extended equally to customers in lower-income and rural areas–and they also warn it could lead to a drop in funding for public education and government programming in many communities. The House earlier this year passed similar legislation (see story: Telecom bills jeopardize ed programming).

Unlike the House bill, however, the Senate version also addresses several eRate-related issues.

Perhaps most significantly, the Senate bill (S. 2686) would give the eRate a permanent exemption to the Anti-Deficiency Act. Largely viewed as an arcane government accounting practice, the act–which requires government agencies to have money in hand before promising it to grant applicants–forced the program to shut down for three months in 2004, delaying the distribution of funds to schools and causing an uproar among eRate applicants who relied on the money to pay for services rendered.

The bill also would create a FCC-led panel to better police the eRate, often criticized by Washington politicians for its susceptibility to waste, fraud, and abuse. Among several proposed fail-safes, the system would create sanctions for eRate applicants and providers who “knowingly and repeatedly” run afoul of program rules.

In addition, the bill would establish new performance measures designed to gauge schools’ progress toward certain connectivity goals, or milestones. In the past, program administrators have been criticized for failing to keep better track of applicants’ progress.

As the Senate debates its version of the telecommunications bill, another issue likely to cause some contention is “net neutrality,” or how to ensure that consumers and internet content providers continue having open and nondiscriminatory access to the internet.

Earlier this year, the Senate Commerce Committee rejected a proposed amendment by Sens. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., that would have prohibited telephone and cable companies from limiting access to their high-speed internet networks based on a content provider’s services or financial arrangements. The vote was 11-11, and ties defeat proposed amendments. But a similar measure might be introduced as the full Senate debates the bill.

Supporters of “net neutrality” argue that service providers could give preferential treatment to business partners or use pricing and access limits to discriminate between web sites and other internet users. For instance, telephone companies have talked about creating a “two-tiered” system in which users of their networks–including schools and other web site operators–desiring faster service for the delivery of broadband or voice-over-IP applications would have to pay more. Those who couldn’t pay would be relegated to the internet “slow lane.”

“What’s at stake is the internet in the 21st century,” said Snowe, the only Republican to vote for the amendment. “This is the preservation of digital democracy.”

Phone and cable companies say a “net neutrality” proposal would stifle investment in broadband technology by restricting what they could charge customers, and most Republicans have argued against interfering in a system that so far has worked well without government regulation.

On Aug. 21, Deborah Platt Majoras, the Republican chair of the Federal Trade Commission, expressed skepticism toward proposed “net neutrality” legislation, according to technology news source ZDNet. She said such legislation is “unnecessary,” because there isn’t any demonstrated consumer harm and because market forces would likely prevent any problems. She added that net neutrality laws could create more problems than they prevent. (See story: FTC chief critiques net neutrality.)

At press time, it was unclear whether Congress would reach an agreement on a final telecommunications bill by year’s end. Even if the larger bill remains stalled, industry watchers who spoke with eSchool News said smaller portions of the bill could sneak through in the form of riders attached to other, more imminent pieces of legislation, including the federal budget.

Links:

U.S. House of Representatives
http://www.house.gov

U.S. Senate
http://www.senate.gov