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The New York City Board of Education's plan to get kids wired by trading ad space on a new Web site may have only a handful of critics, but they're getting awfully loud.
At least four members of the New York Coalition for Commercial-Free Schools want to know how the board intends to deliver on a fresh-minted promise to shield children from advertising. Member Chuck Bell says he's heartened by the board's pledge, but he thinks the public deserves more information. His coalition questions everything from the long-term wisdom of using private money to supplement public funding for education to whether fourth-graders are the best choice to receive laptops first.
"They have a 19th-century view of what education should look like. There's no prohibition against the Board of Education becoming involved in the new economy."
Now Bell's group has asked the board to delay its plans. In a letter last month to the board, the coalition urged education officials to put off a decision scheduled for September 13. "To not know the answers and be pushing to put this through at a September vote is just not appropriate," he says.
Irving S. Hamer, former chair of the board's cyberspace task force, says critics like Bell ignore the opportunities schools have to generate money in the new economy. He says the school system needs revenue to equip all fourth-graders with discounted laptops, and to pay for e-mail access for the 1.3 million students, teachers, and administrators. Hamer calls the proposal for a cash-generating Web portal his "brainchild," and says it may solve what appeared an insurmountable problem. "No one has figured out how to make the computers available to everyone," he says. "That is not something the critics usually have an answer to."
People assume the Web site will sell Doritos and Nikes to young people, he says, and their fears stem from an outdated notion that corporations and classrooms can't mix. Hamer himself has been accused of having a conflict of interest because of his dual roles as an education official and executive at TestU, a company that hopes to market online exam-preparation lessons to public schools. Hamer says his critics and those of the proposed school Web site are making a big fuss over nothing.
"Some people do not want any kind of commercialism in education," he says. "They have a 19th-century view of what education should look like. There's no prohibition against the Board of Education becoming involved in the new economy."
But there is a New York State law that prohibits combining advertising and educational material. This means, says Hamer, that the Board can't put a banner ad across a school calendar or homework assignment.
Instead, Hamer's task force, which includes educators and execs from companies like Cisco Systems, IBM, Toshiba, Chase Manhattan, and Andersen Consulting, is drafting plans for a password system. Hamer says this setup will guarantee students log into a commercial-free zone, but give parents their pick of book, hotel, and restaurant listings.
But there's no reason to assume curious children can be stopped from crossing into adult territory, says Vicki Rafel, vice president for legislation at the National PTA. "They are the first ones to unlock something that's forbidden," Rafel says. "My five-year-old grand- daughter can work the VCR. By the time she gets a computer, just think what she'll be able to do. Kids have tremendous buying power these days, and the commercial sites will find a way to market to them."
She's afraid the schools will one day market information gained online from students and faculty. "We don't like schools making contracts that sell kids' privacy and family names," says Rafel.
Bell says his coalition also wants to know what kind of personal information about adults will be collected through the portal and what types of advertising the board will accept. Too much power has been left to the private businesses and educators on the task force, Bell says, pointing to an early-summer draft of the committee's plans in which members speculated whether the site would even be nonprofit. "Those are huge questions," he says.