SEATTLE – Helen Soule applauds the concept behind Microsoft's plan to settle lawsuits from disgruntled consumers by providing computers, software and other high-tech resources to poor schools.
"If structured properly, the settlement could really have far-reaching positive effects on the students of the United States," said Soule, who -- as director of technology for the state of Mississippi -- has spent years working to get computers into Mississippi's most poverty-stricken schools.
But she's among a growing group of educators who say that as it stands, the settlement proposal will further Microsoft's competitive advantage in schools while doing little to meet the poorest school's extensive needs.
"States, districts and schools have spent a lot of time over the last five years creating technology plans," Soule said. "I would much rather that they be able to implement those plans with some sort of Microsoft funding, rather than be given specific things that they don't necessarily need."
Many have taken their concerns to U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz in Baltimore, who is overseeing the consumer class-action lawsuits and will hold a preliminary hearing Tuesday on the proposal to settle claims that Microsoft abused its monopoly power and overcharged people for Windows, Office and other software.
Under the proposal made public last week, Microsoft and some plaintiffs agreed the company would provide more than $1 billion worth of Microsoft software, refurbished personal computers and other resources to some of the nation's poorest schools.
Microsoft says the deal allows schools to choose to spend money on training and resources for non-Microsoft products. But the company concedes that those who go with Microsoft products will be given more resources, such as free software.
"The actual settlement is made up of a basket of resources," says Mark East, worldwide general manager of Microsoft's education solutions group. "The software component is just one of the elements."
It's still drawn the ire of Glenn Kleiman, a lecturer with the Harvard Graduate School of Education Technology and a longtime research in the field.
"To put it bluntly, Microsoft is trying to pull a fast one here," says Kleiman, who is a consultant for some of the plaintiffs who oppose the settlement. "They are saying that they are providing $1 billion plus of resources, but it's being done in a way that's self-serving to Microsoft."
Kleiman is in Seattle to spend the week meeting with officials from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a philanthropical organization set up by Microsoft co-founder and chairman Bill Gates.
The multibillion-dollar foundation's efforts to aid long-term school reform are widely lauded by educators including Kleiman -- and stand in stark contrast to this proposal, he says.
Among other issues, educators find fault with the the proposal to provide schools with refurbished computers, which they worry will be second-rate.
"I don't think Microsoft would want the students in the more needy schools to be treated differently than students in affluent schools," Soule says. "I think some of the settlement, where it proposes outdated hardware and software, just sends a negative message in term of quality education for all children."
Educators say the proposal also does not provide enough infrastructure support, meaning that although schools get computers and technology they will not have enough money to run them properly.
"This settlement, I fear, will perpetuate and institutionalize the digital divide between our affluent schools and our poor schools," Linda Roberts, who directed the Clinton administration's educational technology program and now works as a private consultant for companies including Microsoft rival Apple.
She fears the five-year program will provide some resources but -- like many charitable donations -- not the follow-through needed to make the programs effective.
Microsoft denies this, noting that the settlement proposes to establish an independent foundation to oversee the agreement and follow through after the five-year period is up.
East believes the program will actually save schools money, although company officials stress that they don't believe the program can solve all of the problems schools face.
"I don't think you can say that there's an educator out there who can make the arguement that one-to-one access to computers in education is a bad thing, nor that improving the amount of training that teachers receive is a bad thing," says spokesman Matt Pilla. "It's a great thing."
The National Education Foundation is among those applauding the settlement as a boon for poor schools. Some state officials, including school superintendent Terry Bergeson in Microsoft's home state of Washington, feel the same way.
Those who oppose the settlement are urging Motz, the judge overseeing the lawsuits, to give the parties more time to come to an agreement that, they believe, will do more to help schools achieve the long-term objective: helping poor kids become computer-literate.
"The goals are wonderful, but there are far better ways to meet them than this proposal," Kleiman said.