National Education Association


FEBRUARY 10, 1998

Chairman McCain and Members of the Committee:

The National Education Association (NEA) represents more than 2.3 million teachers and other education employees in America's public elementary, secondary, vocational, and postsecondary schools. We appreciate the opportunity to present our views on an issue so crucial to the vitality and efficacy of America's public schools as locally driven conveyors of knowledge, values, and skills.

Clearly, student exposure to indecent material on the Internet - whether intentional or inadvertent - is an issue that demands attention as access to this powerful electronic medium becomes commonplace in schools in communities all across America. For just as surely as the Internet offers students access to world-class museums, universities, libraries, government agencies, cultures, and other learning resources, it can disrupt the educational experience and, in extreme and rare cases, compromise student safety.

The Internet represents an educational tool whose power and reach may be unequaled by any that came before it. That power and reach brings with it the difficult task of striking a balance between teaching a student responsibility, discernment, and critical thinking skills and shielding him or her from material deemed inappropriate or indecent. Is there a pat formula for achieving that balance? We do not think so. Regardless, we support and encourage ongoing local efforts to deal with this problem.

To this end, the NEA has taken a number of steps to assist communities and educators in promoting responsible Internet use. For example, we served on the steering committee of the Internet On-Line Summit. We are currently working with other education groups and corporations on a national public education campaign that will roll out this fall. NEA also is sponsoring, along with a major telecommunications provider, a series of training workshops that will occur at sites around the country. Finally, NEA is preparing acceptable use policy templates for educators and students.

Today, fewer than 20 percent of public elementary and secondary school classrooms have a connection to the Internet. However, that percentage will increase considerably in the next few years. Given all that has been written and said about the irresponsible and even illegal use of the Internet by a small minority of individuals, some people, knowing that the numbers of schools on-line will only increase, have moved to recommend strict, gated access for students. To those people, it is worthwhile to point out that while the technology may be new, the issues are not. Among these issues are academic freedom, student conduct, exposure to controversial ideas, and student and parental responsibility.

Parents, educators, business people, lawmakers, and others who have a stake in the education of our children and young adults recognize that proficiency with the Internet is necessary for the level of academic achievement and skills required to succeed in the 21st century. It is our hope that this hearing sheds light, not only on the harmful effects of isolated cases of exposure to indecent and inappropriate Internet material, but also on benefits gained when forethought is given to developing policies and procedures that facilitate using the Internet as a tool for learning.

We further hope that this hearing generates a discussion among students, parents, teachers, and others concerning values, responsibilities, and expectations. For only through such a serious ongoing examination can we arrive at clear and proactive rules today for the challenges that will surely arise tomorrow.

As some Members of Congress consider addressing student access to the Internet, it would be instructive to lay out some relevant questions. First, and most important, should school access to subsidized telecommunications services rest on the installation of filtering or blocking software to protect against indecent or inappropriate materials on the Internet? Second, how effective are filtering and blocking software? Third, who should decide whether filtering and blocking software will be part of a school's policy on use of the Internet? And finally, should school policies governing the use of the Internet be more expansive than those used to select and use other materials or tools designed to enhance student learning?

While the NEA has no formal policy on blocking and filtering software, it is our belief that students must have access to and instruction in the use of the Internet and other instructional technology devices and materials. Further, the democratic values that schools have sought to uphold and promulgate, such as responsibility, self-respect, and teamwork, take hold best in an atmosphere that promotes free inquiry, unencumbered learning, and a spirited exchange of ideas. Teachers and other educators must be able to determine classroom materials and techniques within locally and mutually determined standards, policies, and guidelines.

This year, thanks to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, schools nationwide will have access to discounts on a range of telecommunications services, including basic telephone and Internet connections. This act will help close the great technological divide between schools that are wealthy and those that are not. Allow us to express our thanks to Congress and this committee for recognizing the importance of telecommunications access to students.

Credit goes as well to the Administration, the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service, and the newly created Schools and Libraries Corporation for their tireless work in conceptualizing and implementing the unprecedented Universal Service Support Mechanism for School and Libraries, whose discounts are commonly known as the E-Rate. The program reflects the best thinking of many dedicated individuals, organizations, and agencies, including those from the education, library, and technology communities.

Given this spirit of collaboration, it seems counterproductive at this late juncture to impose a top-down mandate requiring schools to install filtering or blocking software as a condition for accessing E-Rate discounts. Schools already have fulfilled a long list of congressional and Federal Communication Commission requirements to participate in the discount program. For example, they have prepared comprehensive technology plans and submitted them for approval to the appropriate state or local agencies. They have expended a tremendous amount of resources to train school personnel in new technologies. They have earmarked funds from their limited budgets to purchase the hardware and software needed to fully benefit from the program.

And, finally, many have submitted time-consuming applications for services to the Schools and Libraries Corporation. Forcing schools to jump through yet another hoop now will only further strain the already overburdened financial and staff resources of our nation's schools.

While there can be no question that many parents and educators worry that children may run across obscene material in an unsupervised environment, a federally inspired directive violates the principle and philosophy of local control of curricular matters. Moreover, at a time of widespread recognition that program flexibility and minimal federal intrusion promote success, it makes little sense to issue a blanket requirement.

Enacting such a sweeping and unfunded mandate could postpone, if not derail, the benefits of the program. At a minimum, it could preclude the participation of students in poor school districts.

The fact is that communities, school districts, and schools nationwide are dealing with these issues effectively. Some choose blocking or filtering software as part of their answer. What is important is that they are making the decision as a community. They are taking a path that they feel best reflects their community's values and ideals.

Before proposing the use of blunt instruments such as filtering and blocking software, it is important to determine the extent of student exposure to indecent material on the Internet. We are aware of no statistics or research that do so. Nevertheless, anecdotal information from NEA's 52 state affiliates and more than 13,000 local affiliates indicates that flare-ups are sporadic. In those cases where students are exposed to indecent content, school staff are using these situations to seek community input in devising Internet use policies.

As noted earlier, some school districts and communities elect to use blocking and filtering software as part of their acceptable use policies (AUPs). Importantly though, various studies have shown that blocking software and filtering software have serious technical limitations and provide a false sense of security.

Filtering software, for example, tends to filter out words or phrases indiscriminately. A decision to filter sites that contain the word "breast," for instance, could prevent access to sites that deal with breast cancer. On the other hand, blocking software, which prevents users from viewing a list of predetermined sites deemed inappropriate, fails to block access to some inappropriate sites and may not allow access to clearly acceptable sites. Take, for example, a November 1997 study of the "world's first family-friendly search site" by the Electronic Privacy Information Center. The combination blocking and filtering site let through only eight of the 2,638 references in the Internet for Dr. Seuss, and one was a parody of the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson.

Issues of cost and allocation of scarce resources raise significant concerns at a time when schools have students with myriad educational and social problems and are expected to do more with less. Not only must schools absorb the cost of the software, they usually must devote staff time to customize software, review pre-screened sites, and ensure that sites are categorized by age appropriateness.

Some school districts have chosen filtering or blocking software as a way to exert content control. To them, the limitations that the software has shown and the staff time necessary to monitor and customize the software are acceptable, given an overriding community interest in screening indecent material. Other school districts have chosen not to use screening software. Instead they have fashioned acceptable use policies that rely on broad community input and strict implementation. Locally determined acceptable use policies, whether they incorporate software or not, have shown great promise in integrating the Internet into a comprehensive educational framework that prepares students to compete successfully in a technologically oriented workplace.

So who should determine whether the use of filtering or blocking software is the right answer for a particular community? In the end, the form that an acceptable use policy takes is not as important as the fact that various segments of a community participate in the design of the policy. These segments should include teachers; parents; librarians; school administrators, media specialists, and legal counsel; people and groups familiar with the Internet; business people; students; and teacher association representatives.

Experience has shown that drawing the community into a discussion about acceptable use policies minimizes the likelihood of future problems. More importantly, it involves parents and others in the educational experience, an outcome that benefits us all.

We also must consider whether school policies governing the use of the Internet should reach beyond those policies already in place that deal with conduct. Here again, experience has shown that the best policies are an extension of existing student codes of conduct.

In an age of ever-expanding technological wonders and possibilities, nothing has yet to replace old-fashioned communication and debate that is vigorous. and open. Superimposing a solution to a challenge that defies a one-size- fits-all answer robs communities and families of their right to self-determination. Worst of all, it sends the message to communities around the country that a small group in Washington is better equipped to resolve local issues than they are. Our experience with school communities nationwide indicates the opposite. They have viewed the introduction of the Internet into schools as a significant opportunity as well as a challenging responsibility. They have responded by involving community members, parents, students, and educators in the process of devising approaches that meet their needs and expectations.

In closing, shielding our children from corrupt and harmful influences springs from honorable intentions. Nonetheless, good intentions can make for bad policy. We urge you not to make E- Rate discounts contingent upon the installation of blocking or filtering software. Instead, local communities should continue exercising their prerogative to protect and educate their children.