Far more personal information on students than is necessary is being collected by public schools, according to the Fordham Law School Center on Law and Information Policy, which investigated education records in all 50 states. States are failing to safeguard students' privacy and protect them from data misuse.
Some states collect a lot of data that has nothing to do with student test scores, including Social Security numbers, disciplinary records, family wealth indicators, student pregnancies, student mental health, illness and jail sentences. A couple of states record the date of a student's last medical exam and a student's weight.
The Fordham study reported that this collection of information is often not compliant with a 35-year-old law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). The only punishment for a FERPA violation is for the Department of Education to withhold federal education funding, but the department has never done that.
The building of databases that track students from pre-school through entry into the workforce began with the emphasis in the 1990s on testing and standards, and was expanded under "No Child Left Behind" mandates. This data collection has been proceeding at what observers call a "breakneck pace" under the Obama administration because of the offer of federal grants awarded through the Race to the Top competition, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and $250 million in stimulus funds.
Fordham law professor Joel R. Reidenberg, who oversaw the Fordham study, said that states are "trampling the privacy interests of those students." He warns that years later, when these kids are adults, information from their elementary, middle and high school years can easily be misused by hackers and others.
The Fordham report made numerous recommendations to beef up student privacy, such as collecting only information relevant to articulated purposes, purging unjustified data, enacting time limits for data retention and hiring a chief privacy officer for each state. There is no indication that these suggestions will be implemented.
The Obama Department of Education officials believe that collecting personally identifiable data is "at the heart of improving schools and school districts." One of the four reform mandates of the Race to the Top competition is to establish pre-kindergarten to college-and-career data systems that "track progress and foster continuous improvement."
Phyllis Schlafly is a national leader of the pro-family movement, a nationally syndicated columnist and author of Feminist Fantasies.
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