Miseducation bill?

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Two weeks after the U.S. Senate added a requirement to a new education bill stipulating that schools have to inform parents before providing any information to marketers, upset marketers and school officials are warning that many classroom programs are at risk.

An amendment added by Sens. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Chris Dodd, D-Conn., is so broad in requiring notice, and often parental permission, that school districts are more likely to throw in the towel and drop the use of magazines and the Web in the classroom as well as some fund-raising programs-including magazine subscription drives-rather than run through the administrative hassles of complying, they warn.

"CHILDREN WILL SUFFER"

"Kids will be denied access to the Internet. Schools will be denied collaborative engagements with businesses and at the end of the day, children will suffer," said Dan Fuller, director of federal programs for the National School Boards Association. "From the school districts' standpoint, it is unworkable."

Jim Cragan, exec VP-government affairs for the Magazine Publishers of America, called the language "a mess."

"It's poorly drafted. It's unclear who it would affect and it's unnecessary, [but if the language stays] local schools are going to be so uncertain how to proceed, they are going to abandon things rather than proceeding."

NO DEBATE

The Shelby/Dodd amendment was one of two conflicting kids' marketing amendments added without debate to an education bill that already passed in the House. A second amendment, from Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., would require school districts to create policies for giving marketers information. People close to the Senate said that rather than let the Senate get bogged down on debate between the two amendments, senators chose to let the House-Senate conference committee iron out the difference.

Marketers' big concern is the Shelby/Dodd measure, which would force schools to notify parents every time any piece of information gained in school would go to a marketer, even if the information is anonymous. If the information is personally identifiable, schools have to get parental permission first.

The school and advertising groups contend the proposal would be a nightmare to administer. It would require schools to send notices to parents each time a company wanting to offer something to a class asked how many boys and girls there were. And it could possibly force schools to get parental permission for each student's use of a class magazine and for entering science fairs and spelling bees. In essence, anytime a student is to be solicited for purchase of a class ring or yearbook, and anytime students will participate in class fund-raising projects, the schools would have to involve the parents.

"This is not just a blip on the advertising screen. This is something that could have effects," said Dan Jaffe, exec VP of the Association of National Advertisers.

Mr. Fuller said the language is so broad it could effectively ban the use of the Internet in schools by forcing schools to determine which sites do and don't collect personal information and giving notice to parents before a student could surf to a site that collects.

"Schools have a lot of things to do," he said, warning that districts' reactions would likely be to abandon programs. "Schools should determine what to do based on local values. This is Congress stepping in with one size fits all."

Jeff Ballabon, VP-public policy for Primedia, said that the company's Channel One program won't be directly affected because Channel One doesn't collect any information from schools.

Publishers, however, could be more affected, especially those that benefit from subscription drives.

"Any publication sold through school fund-raising runs the risk of being violently affected," he said.

Mr. Ballabon suggested that the legislation goes overboard to try to limit activities of some companies that in several instances already failed in the school market.

"This is like a bunch of dolphins being caught in a tuna net," he said.

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