Educators arguing in court against Microsoft's private antitrust suit settlement

Tuesday, November 27th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SEATTLE (AP) _ Helen Soule applauds the concept behind Microsoft Corp.'s plan to settle lawsuits from disgruntled consumers by providing computers, software and other high-tech resources to poor schools, but she can't support the way the technology giant plans to carry it out.

``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 poverty-stricken schools.

But she's among a growing group of educators who say the proposed settlement would further Microsoft's competitive advantage in schools while doing little to meet the poorest schools' 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 lawsuit. He scheduled a preliminary hearing Tuesday on a proposal to settle claims that Microsoft abused its monopolistic standing in the software market and overcharged people for Windows, Office and other software.

Under the proposed settlement made public last week, Microsoft and some plaintiffs agreed the company would provide more than $1 billion worth of Microsoft software, refurbished computers and other resources to some of the nation's poorest schools.

Microsoft said the deal allows schools to choose to spend money on training and resources for non-Microsoft products. But the company concedes that schools that choose Microsoft products will be given more resources, such as free software.

``The actual settlement is made up of a basket of resources,'' said Mark East, worldwide general manager of Microsoft's education solutions group. ``The software component is just one of the elements.''

That packaging has been criticized by Glenn Kleiman, a lecturer with the Harvard Graduate School of Education Technology and a consultant for some of the plaintiffs who oppose the settlement.

``To put it bluntly, Microsoft is trying to pull a fast one here,'' Kleiman said. ``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 meeting this week with officials from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a philanthropical organization set up by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates. He and others laud the multibillion-dollar foundation's efforts to aid long-term school reform, but he says those efforts stand in stark contrast to the proposed Microsoft settlement.

Among other issues, educators worry that the refurbished computers Microsoft would provide under the settlement would be second-rate.

Educators also said the proposal doesn't provide enough support, so while schools would get computers they won't have the money to keep them running.

Microsoft officials note that the settlement proposes establishing an independent foundation to oversee the program. Company officials have said the money, to be disbursed over five years, would go to more than 12,500 of the nation's poorest schools and serve about 7 million children.

East believes the program would save schools money, although company officials stress that they don't believe the settlement could solve all of the problems schools face.

Microsoft would admit no wrongdoing under the proposed settlement, which would have to be approved by Motz. A hearing was scheduled for Nov. 27.

Attorney Michael Hausfeld, who represents plaintiffs in Washington, D.C., has said using money from any Microsoft settlement for schools makes sense because each of the 65 million computer buyers eligible to gain from a settlement would likely receive only about $10.