After Luring States into Student Data Collection Systems, Obama ‘Campaigns’ for Tough Data Privacy

AP Photo/Brynn Anderson
AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

After enticing states into a binding promise to develop their student databases, President Obama now says he will call for legislation that will protect students from commercial data mining.

According to Politico, Obama is now concerned about student privacy and will urge Congress “to impose a bevy of restrictions on companies that operate websites, apps and cloud-computing services aimed at the K-12 market…”

The president is reportedly hoping Congress will model a federal student privacy law after the one passed in California last year and due to take effect in January of 2016.

California’s SB 1177 prohibits online companies from “knowingly using, disclosing, compiling, or allowing a 3rd party to use, disclose, or compile the personal information of a minor for the purpose of marketing or advertising specified types of products or services.”

The law purports to protect data such as personal information that would permit physical or online contact, social security numbers, student grades, medical records, evaluations, test scores, photos, text messages, food purchases, political affiliations, religious information, socioeconomic data, voice recordings, criminal records, and disciplinary records.

In preparation for his State of the Union address, in which cybersecurity will reportedly be a focus, Obama has scheduled several days of what Politico refers to as “campaign-style events” to draw attention to his student privacy issue.

The president’s new interest in student privacy, however, appears insincere to anti-Common Core activist parents and professionals who observe that, in Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill, among the “conditions” for states to receive waivers from the restrictions of No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—were the adoption of “common” college- and career-ready standards and aligned assessments and the commitment to make a “priority” the “expansion and adaptation” of the Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems (SLDS).

According to the U.S. Education Department’s “Race to the Top Program Executive Summary:”

The Secretary is particularly interested in applications in which the State plans to expand statewide longitudinal data systems to include or integrate data from special education programs, English language learner programs… early childhood programs, at-risk and dropout prevention programs, and school climate and culture programs, as well as information on student mobility, human resources (i.e., information on teachers, principals, and other staff), school finance, student health, postsecondary education, and other relevant areas, with the purpose of connecting and coordinating all parts of the system to allow important questions related to policy, practice, or overall effectiveness to be asked, answered, and incorporated into effective continuous improvement practices.

The Secretary is also particularly interested in applications in which States propose working together to adapt one State’s statewide longitudinal data system so that it may be used, in whole or in part, by one or more other States, rather than having each State build or continue building such systems independently.

In a paper titled “Cogs in the Machine: Big Data, Common Core, and National Testing,” published by the Boston-based Pioneer Institute, authors Emmett McGroarty, Joy Pullmann, and Jane Robbins explain the reason for the federal government’s desire for this “condition” placed upon states:

Federal law prohibits USED [U.S. Education Department] from maintaining a national student database… Since the absence of a national database impedes efforts to track citizens and manage the economy by manipulating the workforce, the federal government has for years been building the statutory structure to evade this prohibition. In fact, the law that essentially created the federal role in education also called for databases to monitor compliance with federal law in exchange for federal funds… The federal structure now incentivizes states to build identical—and therefore sharable—data systems, enabling a de facto national database.

McGroarty, education director at American Principles Project (APP), observed to Breitbart News, “The stimulus bill has allowed for aggressive data mining through a regulatory rewrite of FERPA.”

As McGroarty and his colleagues wrote, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA) “prohibits the disclosure of students’ personally identifiable information (PII), by federal, state, or local education entities, without written consent of the student or his parents…”

However, in 2013, Congress essentially gutted FERPA to enable schools to release a child’s record to child welfare agencies without the consent of parents. In some cases, a child’s information may be released without even informing parents.

“Parents may not sue a school that discloses their child’s PII in violation of FERPA,” state the authors:

Under the new regulations, an “authorized representative” designated to receive students’ PII, without consent, can be literally anyone – another government… a foundation or other private nonprofit organization, a research group, an individual, or a for-profit company… As long as the data was released in connection with an audit or evaluation of a federal or state-sponsored “education program,” parental consent would not be required before the release…

“By the time it launched its NCLB waiver effort, the Obama administration for the most part had its data-collection pieces underway,” McGroarty said.

Since it has been President Obama who has coerced states into expanding student data collection, and it is under his administration that FERPA was gutted, many parents are unconvinced that Obama now desires to protect student privacy.

“Interestingly, the White House again deflects from the actual issue, which is creation and implementation of the State Longitudinal Database System through which to collect information about students in public schools,” President of Restore Oklahoma Public Education (R.O.P.E.) Jenni White told Breitbart News:

It is the federal government’s insistence on creating programs and initiatives – such as the Safe Schools initiative – that forces schools to collect data on student behavior, which is then added to the SLDS, creating a “portfolio” of a child that will not only be with them throughout their lives, but can be shared widely due to massive holes in FERPA.

So, here we have the White House waving one hand to distract the public from what the other one is really doing – pretending they “feel our pain” while not really solving the biggest problem of all.

Glen Dalgleish, co-founder of Stop Common Core in New York State, told Breitbart News that while parents “applaud all measures that will protect and enhance student privacy, they want to know where their children’s data is going or will be used for.”

He fears that issue is still not being addressed.

“Having commercial companies self-regulate is of course utter nonsense, but the same could be said for the government too,” Dalgleish added. “The gutting of FERPA’s protections needs to be reversed and strengthened so that student privacy rights are secured from the government’s overreach and loopholes too.”

Ironically, with Obama looking to California’s new student privacy law, parent activist and co-director of Californians United Against Common Core Darcy Brandon told Breitbart News that her state’s new law is “a ruse to try to pacify the parents and those opposed to the data collection of our students and their families.”

“Part of the California law is to prevent advertisers from targeting students and, if that’s as far as you read on the bill, that sounds great,” Brandon said. “However, if you read the entire bill, you will find that ‘an Operator may disclose covered information of a student under’ certain ‘circumstances.’”

Brandon observes that student information can be released by an “Operator” if the federal or state governments “require the Operator to disclose the information,” “for legitimate research purposes,” and “to a state or local educational agency as permitted by state or federal law.”

“Since FERPA was gutted, I believe this section allows the data to continue being collected,” she added. “Programming experts have also indicated that even if they remove the ‘personally identifiable’ indicators, they can still go back and identify them if they want to.”

“If Obama wants to protect student privacy online, why not reinstate the privacy rules of FERPA?” Brandon asks. “Why is there a need for another layer of regulation? He is totally contradicting himself, since we all know part of the stipulation for the Common Core-aligned assessments was to collect the data.”


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