I’ve composed a simple haiku to help illustrate the current CIPA issues.

CIPA compliance
Kids should act right on the Net.
Schools must insure that.

Let me begin by saying that protecting children on the Internet is a noble goal. We’ve seen numerous reports in the media recently about students being cyberbullied, with disastrous results for the victim. Unfortunately the landscape for kids is no longer a "sticks and stones" kind of world. Children are increasingly being threatened and harassed via the Internet. So it is understandable that the FCC should desire to take measures to educate minors about appropriate online behavior.

In October of 2008, Congress passed a bill amending the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requiring E-rate participants to create online safety education programs by July 1, 2010 in order to receive funding. In November of 2009, the FCC finally released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) providing further details about how this would impact E-rate stakeholders. A final Order has not yet been released as of the date of this writing.

One of the most significant proposed changes to CIPA would be to require schools to revise their Internet safety policies to include education about appropriate online behavior and cyberbullying  awareness. This would include teaching kids about how to interact with one another on social networking sites and in chat rooms.  More importantly, the proposed revisions would require E-rate applicants to certify on their Forms 486 that they have amended their Internet safety policies to reflect such programs, in order to receive funding.

Can of Worms Anyone?

If this doesn’t open up a can of worms, then I don’t know what will. First off, will these programs be required to be structured a particular way? I foresee that if there are no requirements as to how these programs are to be structured and implemented then E-rate applicants could face denials of funding if a reviewer feels that the program structure isn’t robust enough. Applicants are already at the mercy of the whims of reviewers. There are too many gray areas in the E-rate program as it is. Without order and direction on how these programs should be structured, applicants will find themselves in a precarious situation. As Alexander Pope once wrote, "Order is Heaven’s first law." Perhaps the FCC should heed that advice.

What also worries me is that applicants must comply with these regulations by July 1, 2010, yet the final guidelines from the FCC haven’t even been released. First off this is a logistical nightmare for large school districts. Most large school districts require school board approval for such policies. This means that a District would need to 1) re-write their current Internet safety policy to align with the current "guidance", 2) submit the new policy to the school board 3) hold a public hearing (assuming you interpret the proposed rules to mean that an applicant is required to hold a public hearing) and 4) wait for the school board to approve the new policy….all before July 1, 2010. Let me paint you a picture of how things can go wrong very quickly. Let’s say that an applicant overhauls their Internet safety policy to conform with the guidance as it is currently written. Then let’s say the FCC issues the final regulations and they vary substantially from the proposed rules. Now we have an applicant that is going to have to revise an already revised Internet safety policy. And all of this by July 1st?

The most frustrating element to this has been what to tell applicants regarding the new CIPA regulations. The honest truth is I don’t know.  We can interpret what the proposed rules are but until the final rules are issued we just won’t know.

Where’s the Beef?

My next concern is the financial implications and the strain on already tight resources for applicants. If schools are now to be required to educate students about appropriate online behavior and cyberbullying, who is going to do that? Will schools need to hire additional staff? What kind of training would the instructor need? How will this fit into already packed curriculums? Schools are already facing extreme budget shortfalls. Everyday there are numerous accounts of school closures due to budget cuts. Shouldn’t the FCC recognize the snowball effect concerning these proposed changes? As the statutory shepherds of the E-rate program the FCC has a responsibility to ensure that schools receive E-rate funding without enduring a whole new set of obstacles.

You Can’t Handle the Truth....On the Form 486 Anyway

And now for something completely different....the Form 486.  I’ve recently seen an applicant forced to select the certification stating that they had a technology plan, even though the services they were requesting were for basic telephone. At first the applicant tried to submit the Form 486 without this certification. It was rejected by the SLD. The applicant was told that they needed to select this certification in order for the Form 486 to be processed by USAC. So, in an effort to remain compliant, and honest, the applicant selected the certification and added verbiage noting that they did not have nor did they need a technology plan since the services being requested were for basic telephone service.

I’m completely perplexed as to why the SLD would require the applicant to select that certification when it was clearly erroneous. It was so erroneous that the applicant needed to add verbiage explaining why it was certifying to something which wasn’t true.  How would this affect an applicant should they be audited? Wouldn’t the auditors view that as a finding, making a certification that is inaccurate?

As I stated in the beginning of this blog, protecting children is a noble goal and one that should be furthered. I’m not saying that these proposed changes are bad. I am simply advocating that there be specific requirements in place that all applicants would be required to follow. There should be guidelines on how these programs should be organized so that all schools have a template to follow. As we’ve seen in audits time and time again, where there is no specific guidance an applicant may have followed the spirit of the law but failed in the execution because no rules exist concerning the final execution. If the Village People could resurrect their famous anthem in terms of E-rate....."C.I.P.A., it’s fun to com-ply with C.I.P.A."