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A Tale of Two Amendments in the Student Success Act

· March 3, 2015

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Last week, the House of Representatives adopted two inconsistent amendments to the Student Success Act, H.R. 5, the legislation reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act. The amendments are relevant to the topics we explore here because they illustrate different responses to the manner in which the Internet has changed education. One amendment, sponsored by Congressman Jared Polis (D-CO), would allow state agencies to use federal grants to develop open access textbooks and open educational resources. The other amendment, sponsored by Congressman Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), would allow state agencies to use federal grants to develop educational materials for teachers, parents, and students “about the harms of copyright piracy.” The Polis amendment is forward looking and would introduce more competition and innovation in the K-12 textbook market. The Jeffries amendment is essentially a redundant subsidy for media companies’ advocacy efforts.

I previously have written about how Internet is transforming the textbook industry by facilitating the distribution of open educational resources (OERs). OERs are released (almost always online) under an open license that permits their free use and repurposing. OERs include open textbooks as well as other materials that support access to knowledge such as lesson plans, full courses, and tests. The impetus for the development of open textbooks is the belief that they are less expensive for students (in higher education) and school districts (in K-12) than textbooks developed by commercial publishers. Moreover, open textbooks can easily be customized and updated by instructors, enabling them to provide a better learning experience for their students. Most OERs are funded by foundations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, or government agencies. Several states, including Utah, California, Florida, Maine, and Washington, launched initiatives to develop open textbooks for K-12 students. The Polis amendment would allow federal grants to be used to support such efforts.

Commercial textbook publishers might complain that government funding for the creation of open textbooks constitutes interference in the free market. This argument overlooks the fact that in public K-12 schools, the government is the buyer in the textbook market. School districts – government entities – purchase the textbooks directly. Because the government already is the buyer, it is completely consistent with free market principles for the government to seek the best product at the lowest cost.

The Jeffries amendment, on the other hand, would permit funding for education relating to technology to also be spent on “education about the harms of copyright piracy.” Thus, a local educational agency could direct funds intended for professional development of computer science and technology teachers to educating them about the harms of copyright piracy. Moreover, local educational agencies could use funds intended to assist parents in learning about technology to instead help them learn about the harms of copyright piracy. Additionally, grants for “activities designed to support students, such as academic subject specific programs including computer science and other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics programs,” could be spent on education about the harms of copyright piracy.

In short, the Jeffries amendment would allow funds related to STEM education to be diverted to copyright education. It would diminish the funds available for the technology training that students need to be part of the 21st century workforce, while providing questionable value to its intended beneficiaries. Because the MPAA and RIAA have already developed copyright education curricula, as has the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, it is not clear that more copyright education materials are needed.

In fact, there is no evidence that copyright curriculum is effective in deterring piracy.

Ironically, H.R. 5 stipulates that federal funds be used only for activities that are “evidence-based.”

Investing in the development of open textbooks, as enabled by the Polis amendment, is a much better deal for the public than replicating existing curricula that already exist, some of which taxpayers have already funded. And some might argue that if Congress is specifically interested in promoting creativity, it could do so in more useful ways, such as restoring funding for art education that has been cut across the country.

Intellectual Property

The Internet enables the free exchange of ideas and content that, in turn, promote creativity, commerce, and innovation. However, a balanced approach to copyright, trademarks, and patents is critical to this creative and entrepreneurial spirit the Internet has fostered. Consequently, it is our belief that the intellectual property system should encourage innovation, while not impeding new business models and open-source developments.