Education

Briefly Stated: August 30, 2023

August 29, 2023 8 min read
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Proposal to Use E-Rate for Wi-Fi on Buses Runs Into Opposition

Looks like the Federal Communications Commission proposal to allow the E-rate program to underwrite Wi-Fi on school buses and mobile hotspot devices that schools and libraries can loan out may be in trouble.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., have sent a letter to FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel asking her to “rescind this unlawful plan to vastly expand the E-Rate program.”

The letter—from the top Republicans on the committees that oversee the FCC—came more than a month after Rosenworcel unveiled her Learn Without Limits initiative in late June.

The E-rate program, established in 1996, has helped schools and libraries connect to the internet at discounted rates, but hasn’t been used for home connectivity.

Only 9 percent of K-12 technology leaders say all their students have broadband access at home, even though a majority of students access their schools’ networks from outside the school building, according to the Consortium for School Networking State of EdTech Leadership report.

Cruz and Rodgers’ letter “adds a partisanship that makes it difficult to move things ahead fast,” said Keith Krueger, the CEO of CoSN, which represents school technology leaders.

That’s because it could mean that the two Republican FCC commissioners will oppose the proposal as well, he said. The five-member FCC is currently split evenly between Republican and Democratic commissioners, with one vacancy.

Rosenworcel’s proposal is beyond the commission’s authority, Cruz and Rodgers wrote, and would “duplicate programs across the federal government” and open the door to “wasteful” spending.

The FCC’s E-rate authority is “explicitly confined to classrooms and libraries,” they said, so the program shouldn’t be used off campus. They also wrote that E-rate should only be used to fund “services,” not “consumer devices.”

Also, the Republicans argued, other federal programs are already doing what Rosenworcel proposes.

Rosenworcel’s initiative also includes a grant program that districts could apply for to protect against cyberattacks. Cruz and Rodgers’ letter didn’t mention opposition to that part.

To Comply With State Law, an Iowa District Turns to AI to Decide Which Books to Banish

ChatGPT has been used for many things. Now, it’s been used to figure out which books to remove from school libraries.

An Iowa district apparently has become the first to rely on artificial intelligence to determine which books to banish, in an attempt to comply with a state law that bans library materials with depictions of sex.

As a result of the search, the Mason City schools removed 19 books—including The Handmaid’s Tale, Beloved, and Friday Night Lights—after its assistant superintendent entered a list of about 50 commonly banned books across the country.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, opposes the practice. “We always need to look to the individuals who’ve trained to do this work, who’ve educated themselves, spent time earning degrees, working with kids, gaining the experience to understand exactly what is needed for a student to learn and grow.”

The law in Iowa took effect July 1. It lists consequences for districts and employees if they knowingly violate it, but districts have until Jan. 1, 2024, before the consequences are enforced.

Mason City schools Superintendent Pat Hamilton said the district had never banned books before—or even received book challenges from parents. The law has put Iowa districts in the difficult position of having to comply with the new requirements even if they don’t believe they need to remove any books, Hamilton said.

He said administrators turned to AI because they didn’t think they had the time to review each book before the start of the school year.

“We don’t want to ban any books, but we have to comply with Iowa state law,” Hamilton said. “And we have received no guidance from the state.”

“I’m more concerned about how [the law] affects teachers, and not me,” Hamilton said. He said the district removed 19 books so teachers could feel protected and not at risk of violating the law.

Worry Hangs Over Educators in Georgia District After Teacher Fired and Books Removed

Teachers—at least in Georgia—no longer have to wonder if they’ll get the ax for overstepping what many describe as a vague state law on what they can’t teach.

A school board, voting along party lines, fired a 5th grade teacher this month after officials said she improperly read a book on gender fluidity. In doing so, the Cobb County board overrode the recommendation of a panel of three retired educators. After a two-day hearing, the panel found that Katie Rinderle had violated district policies but said she should not be terminated.

Calling the board vote “an act that only can be construed as politics over policy,” her lawyer, Craig Goodmark, reiterated that the policy prohibiting teaching on controversial issues was so vague that Rinderle couldn’t know what was allowed or not—a point the hearing tribunal seemed to agree on.

Rinderle had been a teacher for 10 years when she got into trouble in March for reading the picture book My Shadow Is Purple, after which some parents complained.

Now, librarians in Cobb County are wondering if they’re next.

Only days after Rinderle’s dismissal, the district announced it had removed two books—Flamer and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl—from 20 school libraries, calling them “highly inappropriate, sexually explicit content.”

Jeff Hubbard, the president of the Cobb County Association of Educators, said media specialists were being questioned about when they had bought the books and why. Such interviews could be a prelude to the librarians being disciplined or fired.

“They’re scared to death, and one parent complaint could cost them a career,” Hubbard said.

Despite a Georgia law that enables parents to challenge books in schools, the Associated Press found in a survey that few are using it.

One key element restraining complaints: The law only allows parents of current students to challenge books.

Research has found complaints nationwide are largely driven by just a few people — who sometimes aren’t parents.

At least 15 large Georgia districts surveyed have received no demands to remove books under the law that took effect in January. That now excludes Cobb County.

Strong Support for Teachers in Annual Back-to-School Poll

Americans may be in disagreement over a lot of things, but not when it comes to their perceptions of teachers.

A substantial majority—73 percent—say teachers are undervalued, 67 percent support increasing their pay even if it means raising property taxes, and 66 percent say that teachers should have more say over what is taught in schools; far more, in fact, than school boards, local residents, and state policymakers.

That’s what the PDK International poll, released last week, found this time around. The poll, drawn from a nationally representative sample of adults who were surveyed in June, has been conducted annually for 55 years and serves as an important barometer of public opinion toward public education.

That doesn’t mean Americans don’t see a role for lawmakers in setting boundaries on curriculum, said James Lane, the CEO of PDK International. Fifty-one percent of respondents supported state laws regarding what teachers can teach.

The survey did not ask specifically about the recent wave of states outlawing the discussion of topics around race and LGBTQ+ issues.

“We’re not in any way saying that just because one group has more influence that respondents are saying that other groups should have no influence,” Lane said. “But what [respondents] are saying, I think, is largely that support for teachers is important now. It’s important to lift up the profession.”

The poll also reveals the growing support among Americans for a four-day school week. More than half of adults—53 percent—say they are in favor of shifting to a shorter schedule in their community.

That’s nearly twice the number who held that opinion two decades ago. Support for the idea is mostly steady even among adults living with a child younger than 18—half of whom said they support the idea in combination with longer school days and as an effort to save money.

Using Facial Recognition Too Risky, N.Y. Study Says

On TV, cop shows often use facial-recognition software to track down the bad guys. But in schools, the “risks may outweigh any documented benefits,” concludes New York state’s Office of Information Technology Services.

“Many claims have been made about the potential of FRT security systems to make schools safer, but little information is available about real-life situations where technology detected and helped prevent violent incidents,” says the report, released this month. “Regardless of the type of technology used, a school’s staff must have some type of forewarning that an individual should not be allowed access to a school for any technology to be effective.”

State Assembly member Monica Wallace said the ITS report validated her concerns about the technology. In 2020, the Democrat co-wrote legislation that led to a statewide moratorium on the use of biometric identifying technology in schools, pending a study of the implications.

When the moratorium was signed into law, Lockport City schools, the only district to employ facial-recognition technology for security purposes, had to shut off its newly acquired, $2.7 million system.

Concerns about the technology include invasion of privacy, an environment of surveillance, and the technology’s shortcomings in accurately identifying females and people of color.

“There are other, more proven ways like hardened doors and resource officers that are better vehicles for making sure that kids are safe in school,” Wallace said.

Less risk is involved in the use of facial-recognition technology for purposes other than systemwide identification—which involves searching a database—such as opening a tablet, the ITS report says. It also points out that other nonfacial-recognition biometric identification technology, such as fingerprint reading, has been useful for scoring tardiness or lunch payment in other school districts, and the choice to use such technology should be left up to individual school districts.

The Associated Press, Wire Service; Lauraine Langreo, Staff Writer; Eesha Pendharkar, Staff Writer; Arianna Prothero, Assistant Editor; and Tribune News Service contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2023 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated

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