As the fall buying season gets under way for schools, 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, 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 Newsreported 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.

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 questionable, unethical, or outright illegal activity involving school technology purchasing. In the past few years, numerous news accounts have laid out similar cases.

“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.

While those interviewed for this story said the ed-tech industry is not awash in wrongdoing, they did agree that administrators 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

One of the best ways to avoid such problems, experts say, is to provide training in what it means to be an ethical decision maker. Too often, though, ed-tech 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.”

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. But critics of the eRate say its requirements are difficult to comprehend and follow, which can lead school tech directors 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.

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

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