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Open Wide, Gift Horse March 27, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Funding, Online Tools.
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katrina   Last week, the news announced that Mrs. Barbara Bush, mother of the current president, was supporting victims of hurricane Katrina by giving money to the Houston area schools to spend on an educational product marketed and sold by her son, Neil. Without trying to cast aspersion on Mrs. Bush’s largess, she appears to have found an excellent way of transferring some of her estate to her son, indirectly of course. I know my colleagues will ask me about this because of my position as Director of Technology and a doctorate on this very topic, the purchase of software by school districts. From an ethical point of view, I suppose my answer will not make some people happy with me. Mrs. Bush is a private citizen and as such is free to give her money to whomever she wishes with whatever stipulation she desires. The Houston Independent School District is also free to turn that same money down if it disagrees with stipulations set by the donor.

The act of rejecting such a gift might have negative fallout. However, one solution to what could be construed as a sticky situation would be for the school district to accept or purchase several sets of software and test it on a few select classes then make a decision to purchase it district wide or to recommend it for purchase by other districts by providing testimony to its effectiveness.

The sticky part of this situation is that the district had already accepted 15 of the programs two years earlier, and wrestled over conflict of interest concerns at that time. If the district accepts the software donation, they are explicitly endorsing the software and providing entrée for it into one of the two major educational markets in the United States. The state of Texas as a market for textbooks drives textbook adoption policies across the entire country. Texas and California followed closely by New York are the three largest textbook markets. Textbook publishers ignore them at their peril.

The same goes for publishers of educational software. Acceptance into these markets means a dominant place in the panoply of educational software publishers and access to many other business opportunities. Mrs. Bush is also an educational beneficiary in a number of universities example she has sponsored the Barbara Bush chair in reading at a Texas University. She has made a very canny business decision to support her son and has wisely avoided contributing to the Bush-Clinton Katrina relief fund, choosing instead to donate to the Bush-Clinton Houston Hurricane Relief Fund; her request was that victims of hurricane Katrina use this educational software.

It might be difficult to assure the former first lady that victims of Katrina would actually receive the software since it is a tool used with an entire class of students. Such a software package is not content-poor software, such as a word processing program or spreadsheet program. It is content-rich software and, as a result, can dictate the direction curriculum in schools adopting it will take.

School district officials should do the right thing and attempt to retain their integrity and independence when it comes to curriculum. Acceptance of such gifts with strings could quite easily lead to pressure from fringe groups to accept their curricular tools into the schools. Pick your boogeyman, Intelligent Design or Secular Humanism; the door is open to either.

Sometimes it is perfectly acceptable to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially if you have some doubt that the four-legged creature in front of you is a horse in the first place. 

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