Lobbyists try to reframe distracted driving issue

Responding to moves by state legislatures to restrict motorists’ use of cell phones and other devices, a major electronics industry trade group and a Washington lobbying firm have been pushing separate efforts to reframe the debate over the dangers of distracted driving, reports the New York Times. The efforts have angered public safety advocates, some legislators, and the Secretary of Transportation, who say such restrictions would save lives. A document that has been circulating over the last week from a Washington lobbying firm, the Seward Square Group, has fueled the tension. The document, a copy of which was posted by the web site FairWarning, says the distracted driving issue has been “hijacked” by national transportation authorities and celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, who has encouraged motorists to pledge to put down their devices. The document says that the auto and technology industries have become “collateral damage” in the debate. Babak Zafarnia, a public relations executive hired by Seward to be the coalition’s spokesman, said the idea was to emphasize driver education and to focus on broad driver-distraction laws, rather than focusing on the use of particular technologies. “You can’t anticipate every possible scenario. Distraction is distraction, period,” he said, adding: “Why don’t we modernize the education curriculum to teach drivers to deal with all in-vehicle distractions?” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who received a copy of the document from a public safety advocate, said he was “alarmed” by what he interpreted as an effort to undermine the creation of tough laws aimed at discouraging drivers from using electronic devices behind the wheel. The chief distraction problem, he said “is caused by people using cell phones and BlackBerrys, and to correct the behavior, you have to have tough laws with good enforcement.”

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Schools’ stimulus spending tough to track amid varied reporting rules

Alongside textbooks and technology, Texas school districts have doled out stimulus money to car dealerships, Atmos Energy, and neighboring cities. Why? It’s hard to tell, reports the Dallas Morning News. Districts must report whom they’ve paid when they spend at least $25,000 in stimulus funds, but they don’t have to say what they’ve purchased—and anything less than that doesn’t require federal reporting. The state education agency asks districts to explain how they will spend their share of $7.1 billion, but the public can’t obtain the information easily. Because few districts break down the purchases, most taxpayers don’t know how their stimulus money gets spent. Federal expenditure reports add to the confusion. They include payments to companies outside the district’s normal supply chain, but offer no further detail, making some acquisitions look questionable. The districts’ answers speak more to accounting than scandal—but determining the funds’ real use remains tricky because the federal Office of Management and Budget wrote the rules to cover all agencies receiving stimulus money, not specifically school districts, said Sandra Abrevaya, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education. “Bottom line, [this was a] great first attempt at setting up a federal reporting system,” she said. “It works quite well for some programs, but doesn’t allow as much detail at the [district] level as we would have built in if we were designing it just for ED.”

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Technology brings new role to public libraries

Tucked under a public library computer keyboard was an anonymous note: “Thank you for helping me get a job.” The paper scrap turned up at downtown Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library, where staff members say their 160 computers are enabling unemployed people to find jobs, do homework, or manage their budgets, reports the Baltimore Sun. “From McDonald’s to McDonnell Douglas, 85 percent of all hiring is done online,” said Pratt CEO Carla D. Hayden. “In a city like Baltimore, where 30 percent of the population has no home computer access, we have found a new role.” The banks of crowded computers illustrate the changing role of libraries, where technology is replacing paper and the throngs keep coming. Libraries are busy providing research services, such as job hunting and resumes, to people who don’t have these resources at home. And more changes are on the way, such as plans to allow electronic books to be downloaded for free on reading devices. The new technologies are boosting library use and drawing in new constituencies, transforming once staid reading rooms into highly diverse mixes of students, seniors, and job seekers intent on finding answers…

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Kid vandals?

GraffitiThe criminals seem to get younger all the time. A school in Louisiana recently reported…

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Lawmakers trade broadband grants, school reforms for education jobs

The measure must still pass the Senate, where Republicans have threatened a filibuster.

The measure still must pass in the Senate, where Republicans have threatened a filibuster.

School districts would get $10 billion in additional funding to help them avoid laying off teachers, and college students would get $5 billion more in Pell Grant money to account for a shortfall in that program, under a supplementary spending bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives July 1. But the additional funding would come at a price for other programs, including $600 million in cuts to broadband stimulus funding and $800 million in cuts to school-reform initiatives.

The changes are part of an $80 billion war spending bill needed to pay for President Obama’s decision to send 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan. As of press time, the bill was awaiting action in the Senate.

The president has promised to veto the bill over its proposed cuts to his school-reform initiatives, including $100 million in charter school funding, $200 million in Teacher Incentive Fund money, and $500 million from the Education Department’s showcase “Race to the Top” (RTTT) program.

“We do not believe that taking money out of that important investment makes any sense at all,” said Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, referring to RTTT in particular. “The president’s been clear with Congress that that doesn’t make any sense at all.”

The rebuke marks an unusually public clash between the White House and President Obama’s top Democratic allies in the House, including Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., chairman of the House appropriations committee, who introduced the education jobs provision.

In debate over the measure on the House floor on July 1, Obey called objections to cutting RTTT “a joke,” noting that even with the proposed $500 million cut, Education Secretary Arne Duncan still has about $3 billion left that “he can spend any way he wants,” the New York Times reported.

The $10 billion Education Jobs Fund is intended to help schools avoid further layoffs to their teaching staffs, especially as federal stimulus funding comes to an end. In a recent survey from the American Association of School Administrators, 68 percent of superintendents said they were forced to cut personnel in 2009-10, despite the influx of stimulus money—and 90 percent anticipate having to do so in 2010-11.

The jobs provision was coupled with $4.95 billion to help fill a shortfall in federal Pell Grants for low-income college students, as well as $1.3 billion in other spending, such as border security and alternative-energy technology loans.

To finance these new initiatives, the House bill includes $11.7 billion in “rescissions from programs that no longer require the funding, have sufficient funds on hand, or do not need the funding this year or next,” as well as $4.7 billion in savings from changes to mandatory programs.

The rescissions include billions of dollars in unspent stimulus funding for highways, community development, and broadband projects, as well as $800 million in unspent money for education.

Cutting $100 million intended to spur the development of more charter schools would bring the total amount of FY2010 funding for the Public Charter School program down to $156 million. (Congress has targeted charter school funding just as new research suggests that charter schools perform no better, on average, than regular public schools.) Cutting $200 million from the Teacher Incentive Fund would bring the total for that program to $400 million, and cutting $500 million from RTTT would leave $2.9 billion to be spent; Delaware and Tennessee already received $600 million in RTTT funding in the first wave of grants.

The bill also would cut $300 million in distance learning, telemedicine, and broadband grants and loans from the Agriculture Department, and another $300 million from the Commerce Department’s Broadband Technology Opportunities program.

The House passed the measure a day before President Obama announced $780 million in new grants and loans to fund 66 more broadband stimulus projects nationwide, benefiting more than 2,400 schools in all 50 states.

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iPad pilots launching in higher ed this fall

More than 100 Oklahoma State University students will test the iPad in the fall.

More than 100 Oklahoma State University students will test the iPad in the fall.

Educators say there’s a simple reason they believe the Apple iPad pilot programs coming to colleges and universities this fall will run smoother than previous trials with popular eReaders: the apps.

Sprawling research university campuses and rural community colleges alike will test the iPad in small groups when students return to school in August and September, evaluating how learning can be improved using a device that has proven popular among 20-somethings who were avid about Apple products even before the iPad was released in April.

University IT departments launched pilot programs for eReaders like the Amazon Kindle and Kindle DX in 2008 and 2009, but student and faculty surveys showed that traditional textbooks were preferred over the eReader devices.

Many Kindle pilots, like one at Arizona State University, were stopped after blind and low-sighted students said the eReader’s small menu and navigation tools were inaccessible. In contrast, an official for the National Federation of the Blind said last week that the iPad’s large screen has gained favor in the blind and low-sighted communities.

“The iPad is considerably closer to an eReading solution that will be effective for blind students than other products that are out there,” said Chris Danielson, a spokesman for the NFB. “I don’t know whether it’s perfect or not, but Apple has clearly thought about accessibility and made and effort to improve it.”

Education technology officials said the iPad also could be more widely accepted because of its vast library of educational applications, such as “The Elements: A Visual Exploration,” which guides students through every part of the periodic table with graphics of each element, presenting an old lesson plan in a captivating platform…

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Apple says iPhones overstate signal strength

Apple Inc. said its iPhones overstate wireless network signal strength and promised to fix the glitch in the coming weeks, Reuters reports. Its admission follows customer complaints about the design of its phone antenna. Apple apologized to customers in an open letter on July 2 and said it was “stunned to find that the formula” it uses to calculate network strength “is totally wrong” and that the error has existed since its first iPhone. Apple, which has sold iPhones since 2007, said it would update its software in coming weeks using a formula recommended by AT&T Inc., the exclusive U.S. provider for iPhone. “Users observing a drop of several bars when they grip their iPhone in a certain way are most likely in an area with very weak signal strength, but they don’t know it because we are erroneously displaying 4 or 5 bars,” according to the letter. The company already has had to apologize for delays in online orders of its iPhone 4 and for a supply shortage in its stores since the device hit shelves June 24…

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Obama to announce broadband grants to spur jobs

U.S. President Barack Obama is slated to announce on July 2 nearly $800 million in loans and grants for the build-out of broadband networks to reach homes, schools, and hospitals, Reuters reports. The grants and loans, which will be matched by another $200 million in outside investment, are part of Obama’s massive federal stimulus package. The White House said the infrastructure projects will directly create 5,000 jobs and help spur economic development in some of the nation’s hardest-hit communities. The planned announcement comes amid news that U.S. employment fell for the first time this year in June as thousands of temporary census jobs ended and private hiring grew less than expected, dealing a blow to Obama who has identified job creation as a key priority. The departments of Agriculture and Commerce will administer the grants and loans, which were awarded for projects in 50 states and Washington, D.C. The projects will include laying communications lines to homes, hospitals, and schools and expanding computer facilities in libraries, community colleges, and other public areas. These latest grants and loans will bring the total amount disbursed for broadband projects to more than $2.7 billion since December 2009, covering more than 260 individual projects…

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Google rumored to be building a Facebook competitor

Silicon Valley is speculating that Google is working on a social network to compete with Facebook, called Google Me, reports the Los Angeles Times. That speculation stems from a tweet by Digg CEO Kevin Rose that he has since deleted and from comments on Quora from former Facebook CTO and Quora founder Adam D’Angelo. D’Angelo wrote that he had heard from reliable sources that Google has made the project a high priority. Google Chief Executive Officer Eric Schmidt wouldn’t comment, but did not deny the rumor at the Guardian’s Activate conference July 1. So far, Google’s attempts to create social networks have not met with much success. Google Buzz, which it launched earlier this year, has not taken off. Its social network Orkut, which has been around since 2004, is popular in Brazil but reaches only 2 percent of internet users. But Google already has a significant number of social properties, including YouTube, Picasa, Blogger, and Google Latitude, not to mention Google Profiles, which it could roll into a single platform. It’s unlikely that Google is preparing to roll out a Facebook clone; whereas Facebook is basically a universe unto itself, Google emphasizes openness. A Google service that runs on open standards and with an open ID system—letting users punch in one password on multiple sites, take their personal data with them when they leave a network, or maintain the same profile on multiple services—could give Facebook, which has come under fire for its privacy policies, a run for its money…

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Groups push feds for video-game age restrictions

Video game aficionados might have to enter a credit card or find another way to verify their age before playing a networked game, thanks to a new push from advocacy groups who say they want to protect minors from in-game advertising messages, CNET reports. In-game marketing has become so advanced that it “allows advertisers to track game users” and detect if people who are exposed to certain ads eventually use or buy the advertised product, a coalition including the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the Center for Digital Democracy, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and U.S. PIRG told federal regulators this week. They say that because “mobile devices, instant messaging, social networks, virtual reality, avatars, interactive games, and online video” have become so pervasive, the Federal Trade Commission must enact new regulations to protect minors from electronic advertisements and other marketing messages. Not only young children are at risk, but the FTC “should seek ways to provide protections to teens,” the coalition recommends…

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