Dale Alexander, the information technology director for Albuquerque, N.M., public schools, was not exactly a fan of software designed to filter out content deemed inappropriate for children. But when Congress required it of schools that receive certain technology grants, he had no trouble deciding to install the software. As much as $14.7 million was at stake.
"There was a lot of money on the table," Mr. Alexander says. And it outweighed any arguments that good adult supervision not a filter is the best way to deal with unsavory online content.
Across the United States, schools are installing filters or expanding their use despite flaws in the software, which sometimes blocks legitimate sites. For the most part, schools had to install filters by the new school year.
"It has left a lot of teachers scrambling to help kids get the information they need," says Tom Henning, a high school physics teacher in San Francisco. In one case this summer, he says, a student researching race tracks for a paper found resources blocked as gambling sites.
In Albuquerque, the swim team couldn't access sites on swimsuits.
The federal Children's Internet Protection Act also requires filtering in libraries, but that provision is on hold after a federal court in Philadelphia struck it down as violating First Amendment guarantees. An appeal is pending.
But the requirement for schools and their libraries was never challenged, partly because schools have greater leeway in restricting student conduct.
Affected programs include technology grants from the Education Department and the popular e-rate subsidies that are funded through telephone surcharges. While the law covers only sexually oriented materials, many districts use the filters to voluntarily block e-commerce, games, and violent content. Schools typically have policies for overriding blocks.
Tim Kajstura, a senior at Ossining (N.Y.) High School, had to choose a new project because a site for Red Hat Inc., a company he wanted to profile, mysteriously got blocked. "What's the use of technology if we can't use it?" he says.
At least one district, in Eugene, Ore., has rejected the grants in question worth about $7,000 rather than expand filtering to all schools. "Filters are imperfect and give parents and students a sense of security that really is not there," says Les Moore, the district's director of computing and information services.