First Person

Editor's blogs: "Free" game apps that come with big iTunes bills

My husband and I are beginning to regret the day we bought an iPad. The apps are cool and all, don’t get me wrong. A month-long Angry Birds addiction isn’t going to destroy a household.

But certain supposedly innocent games just might ravage your wallet. Our 9-year-old daughter was born into a digital world. Moving her small fingers over touch screens, or typing text messages on tiny keyboards are just routine – maybe more so – than brushing her hair or using a pencil.

Beautiful world of touch screens

Enter the world of apps. The night sky app pretty much blows your mind. Point your iPad in any direction and it shows you where certain stars, planets and constellations are at any given time. The first book we downloaded was Alice in Wonderland. Flip a page, jostle the iPad and shake a bottle labeled “drink me” and watch it move about the otherwise antique-looking book page.  Shake it again, and watch an old-fashioned pocket watch bounce about the screen attached by a small “chain” to the letter “S.” Or how ‘bout the Zen-invoking iFish Pond app. I could probably stare at that, and poke my fingers around in the “water,” for hours.

But those apps are so yesterday.

The junk food of apps

Our daughter has since taken command of this flat black machine – even though it’s ours, not hers – and loaded it with all her new favorite games. The 11 talking games now on our iPad started with Talking Tom. You talk, and the animated cat repeats everything you say in a most grating way. Funny for 5 minutes, then you want to run away.

Then, there’s the “maker games,” or at least that’s how someone under the age of 10 has categorized them on our iPad, using an icon filled with tiny mini-icons. Icons within icons, how truly modern.  These mind-numbing games include “cupcake maker,” “fondue maker,” “donut maker, “nachos maker” and “ICEE maker.”

Other game apps I would toss in this category are DressUpBaby or Toca Hair Salon. Then, there’s Temple Run that features a super hero type dude running and grunting through ancient ruins in a jungle.

At first, I was monitoring the apps and games my daughter was playing. But I became lazy, my daughter got the password out of me, and, with some money in an iTunes gift card (birthday present) started buying her own apps.

I gave things a cursory glance and they all seemed innocent enough  – until I started getting the iTunes invoices.

Turns out some of these apps aren’t so innocent. A kid gets hooked into a game, and without knowing it, starts racking up all these additional charges, known as “in-app purchases.”

On March 16, we were charged $17.22, which included a $5.99 for Master ICEE Maker. There are three charges for a game called The Oregon Trail, for $4.97. The kicker? A “free” app called Draw Something Free, sold by OMGPOP. But guess what? Click into it and you’re charged $.99 for TieDyeDoodle, another $ .99 JellyDoodle and the list keeps going. My  daughter played five of those.

Same with Toca Hair Salon, a “free” app, but with insidious charges once you start to play. I just checked out Temple Run, and clicked on a button called “free coins.” Guess what? The only free thing you can do there is “like” the game on Facebook. All the piles of coins cost anywhere from $.99 to $19.99.

Over one month, we racked up $54.95 in iTunes charges for games we didn’t want to pay for.

How to make sure this doesn’t happen to you

We have since figured out how to change our iPad settings so that in-app purchases will not be allowed. Read this post by iPad Insight to find out how to adjust your iPad purchase settings.

I guess we should count ourselves lucky. One English boy spent about $2,084 over four days buying animals to play an iPad app called Tap Zoo. (I just checked and we have that one, too). The app is free, but the animals used to play it aren’t. After some angry exchanges with the boy’s parents, Apple refunded their money. Read more in Lisa Belkin’s Huffington Post blog.

Last week a Federal District Court judge agreed with a Philadelphia parent, who complained about a $200 iTunes bill for various “extras” that his 9-year-old daughter purchased to play “free” apps. The judge agreed that even if parents give  children passwords to make purchases, the cost of so-called free games is “misleading.”

Some in the blogosphere have blamed parents for being too lax about what their kids are doing online. I will admit to being lax for allowing my daughter to spend precious minutes of her life playing games with zero educational value. But I will not take the blame for allowing her to play “free” games that aren’t actually free. To me, this is more than misleading, it’s fraud.

Maybe that is just a lesson she needs to learn. Maybe it’s no different than those pre-recorded phone calls I get telling me I’m about to win something big, really big – I just need to call a phone number to claim my prize. It takes me all of a second to hang up.


First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.