Letter to Vermont Legislators
From Vermont Area Group of Unix Enthusiasts
Vermont Area Group of Unix Enthusiasts http://www.uvm.org/vague
March 5, 2008
To: members of the Vermont House and Senate Committees on Education
Dear Senators and Representatives,
In recent years, taxpayers have voted against many school custom essay and budgets around the state, and school administrators have found themselves facing tough decisions about where to reduce spending. We, as members of the Vermont Area Group of Unix Enthusiasts (VAGUE), wish to inform you of a way that schools can reduce costs while simultaneously providing a better education to students: they can adopt Free Software for use on school computers. We hope you will consider this proposal and discuss it with your colleagues as you make decisions about educational legislation during this and future legislative sessions.
The term ``Free Software" refers to liberty, not to price. Free software is licensed in a way that permits anyone to use it for any purpose, to modify it to suit his or her own needs, and to pass it on to others. (Since access to the software's source code is necessary for these freedoms, you may have heard of free software referred to as ``open source" software.) Free software contrasts with proprietary software, which is licensed in a way that prevents users from legally modifying it or sharing it with one another.
Technology spending is a significant component of school budgets around the state, and a significant portion of technology spending goes to license fees for proprietary software. Schools must typically pay for every copy of each proprietary program that they use. Even at educational discounts, for example, the proprietary Microsoft Windows operating system costs a school district about $50 per computer. This cost is non-recoverable, buys no additional functions beyond those of a free operating system, and recurs every time the system is upgraded. When multiplied by the number of computers running Microsoft Windows in Vermont schools, its cost to taxpayers must be enormous — and this is to say nothing of the cost of licensing proprietary office software, educational software, and other programs for which there are free software equivalents.
Free software is generally available for download without a license fee, so using it in place of proprietary software eliminates this recurring cost. Furthermore, free software has been shown to be more stable and secure than equivalent proprietary software, and it runs well even on older computers. This means that it costs less to maintain both hardware and software in a school that uses free programs. Finally, free software allows school districts to pool their financial resources. Because free software does not place restrictions on how it is distributed, two or more districts can obtain a single copy of a free program and use it on multiple computers, or jointly pay a programmer to make customizations which they all need. For all these reasons, free software can reduce technology spending in schools around the state, potentially saving taxpayers millions of dollars within a few years, and more in the future.
The benefits of free software go beyond simple financial calculations. Using free software gives teachers more control over the way they use technology to educate students, because software installations don't have to be centrally managed to control costs and avoid license violations. Students benefit from educational software not available for proprietary systems, such as programs from the One Laptop Per Child project, which are designed exclusively for young students. Parents and community members benefit from greater flexibility in the software they use at home, because they no longer have to worry about compatibility with proprietary programs used in schools. And because free software is generally developed and maintained by communities of volunteers, it introduces students to the important social values of cooperation, contributing to a cause larger than themselves, and helping their neighbors.
Most importantly, however, free software removes an educational ceiling which schools are currently imposing on students and teachers, and replaces it with an ethic of encouraging student curiosity. Using free software, a student interested in learning about how a computer operating system or a particular program works has the right to download the source code, study it, change it, test it, and so on. Her teacher can help her with this process, instead of informing her that she is not free to learn those things in school. Proprietary software makes this impossible.
Schools and educational organizations around the state are already using free software in a variety of situations. Our own membership provides some examples. VAGUE member Dave Tisdell, who teaches music at Browns River Middle School in Underhill, uses the free GNU/Linux operating system and a variety of free music and audio programs on his classroom computers. Bob Sargent, the technology coordinator at Waits River Valley High School, uses the free OpenOffice software package on student computers and OpenBiblio to provide an online catalog for the school's library. Paul Flint operates a free software-based computer lab at a teen center in Barre. And Dan French, the Superintendent of the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union, works with the Vermont Superintendent's Association to promote the use of free software in schools.
We believe that the adoption of free software in Vermont schools would provide great financial, educational and communal benefits to our students, educators, and taxpayers. We therefore encourage you to promote free software as you create and revise educational policy. Given that the most significant barrier to free software in schools is the need to train teachers and technology staff, one of the most effective means of promotion would be to offer short-term grants for staff training to schools which pledge to adopt free software. Offering school districts full or partial exemption from cost containment legislation (such as Act 82) if they adopt free software would also be an effective alternate means of reducing education costs in the immediate future. As free software becomes more prevalent in Vermont schools, legislation which facilitates its distribution between school districts and provides funds for free software development will further encourage its adoption and reduce educational spending around the state.
We feel it would be a mistake, however, to require school districts to use free software, at least in the short term. Philosophically speaking, free software is about providing computer users with greater freedoms and allowing them to define and meet their own needs; it would be antithetical to this philosophy to impose free software on school districts which may not yet be prepared to adopt it. The best way for a community to reap the benefits of free software is for them to choose for themselves how and when to use it. Educational policy can and should provide incentives for communities to make this choice, but it should not introduce an additional regulatory burden on Vermont schools, where resources are often already spread thin.
As a final note, please be aware that if you would like to study this issue further, our members would be glad to give a presentation to your committee. You are invited to contact us individually if you would like additional information; our e-mail addresses are listed below.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Richard Lawrence and the Vermont Area Group of Unix Enthusiasts
The following members of VAGUE have signed this letter, and are available to be contacted for more information. You may especially wish to contact David Tisdell, Robert Sargent, Paul Flint, or Daniel French (mentioned above); Bryant Patten, Executive Director of the National Center for Open Source and Education, located in Post Mills, VT; Rubin Bennett, a software consultant and free software advocate; or Richard Lawrence, the principal author of this letter and a substitute teacher.
Allan Arthur (N. Chittenden): 
Eric Bachman (Barre): 
Alden Bartlett (Essex Junction): 
Rubin Bennett (East Montpelier): 
Rick Bragg (Burlington): 
Kevin Brooks (Claremont, NH): 
Stanley Brinkerhoff (Montpelier): 
Ernest Buford (Richmond): 
James Carroll (Hinesburg): 
Thomas Cort (Williamstown): 
Andrew B. Crawford (Burlington): 
Tim Feerer (Burlington): 
Jonathan Ferguson (South Burlington): 
Paul Flint (Barre): 
Nicholas Floersch (Montpelier): 
Daniel M. French (Manchester): 
Matthew J. Gagne (Essex): 
Jason Grout (Georgia): 
David R. Hardy (Montpelier): 
Anthony Harris (Worcester): 
Bradley Holt (Burlington): 
Richard Jeroloman: 
Tom Kastner (Stowe)
Richard Lawrence (Essex): 
Jim Lawson (Essex): 
Rion D'Luz (Waterville): 
Keith MacMartin (Northfield): 
Chris Moran: 
Christopher Nyberg (UVM): 
Bryant Patten (Post Mills): 
Mike Raley (Milton): 
Robert Riggen (Essex): 
Balu Raman (Lamoille County): 
Robert Sargent (Orange County): 
Josh Smith (St. Johnsbury): 
Trystan Snyder (Barre): 
Tony Tambasco (Burlington): 
David Tisdell (Jericho): 
Andrew Tomczak: 
Richard White (Marshfield): 
Stephen Barner (Bolton):