Oklahoma Legislators Echo Students’ Privacy Concerns

Published March 26, 2013

Jenni White knows just why she doesn’t want schools amassing her children’s personal information into national databases accessible to anybody governments designate.

“I was a horrible child,” she said. “I didn’t mature until after 40. I can’t conceive of what my life would be like now if I had a record of ‘what Jennifer did as a kid’ following me.”

That’s why the mother of five and cofounder of Restoring Oklahoma Public Education (ROPE) supports Oklahoma House Bill 1989. The student privacy bill passed the House unanimously and awaits a Senate hearing. HB1989 requires the state Board of Education to inventory what student-specific data the state collects, create a detailed data security plan, and send no student-specific information anywhere outside the state unless federal law requires or the student participates in multistate testing.

Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, New York, and Oregon have also recently proposed similar legislation after a broad public outcry.

Federal Intrusion
On March 27, ROPE and several legislators held a rally at the Oklahoma state capitol to discuss student privacy intrusions and their root in Common Core, a set of national education requirements and corresponding tests 46 states have adopted. Because Common Core tests are national, they are a prime vehicle for filling a national database of student information.

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Education rewrote federal privacy laws to let it share children’s academic records with virtually anyone, and states have begun combining typical student records of test scores and discipline history with highly personal information such as medical records and psychological evaluations. Nine states are compiling such information, which includes addresses and Social Security numbers, into a giant private database called inBloom. The stated goal of Common Core is to get students “college- and career-ready,” which Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said student data tracking can assist.

“Few people know the extent of the changes, driven by the private groups advocating this change, which will result in large profits for a few private companies,” said state Rep. Gus Blackwell (R-Oklahoma City).

Blackwell wrote HB1907 to create a task force to study the cost of Common Core, which few states have ever estimated. After the bill passed its committee hearing unanimously, House Speaker T. W. Shannon refused to bring the bill for a floor vote, effectively ending consideration of it. Shannon’s office has not yet responded to three requests for comment in the past six days.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) is vice chairman of the National Governors Association, a nonprofit that instigated Common Core. She took the position after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie turned it down, saying it would require too much of his time.

Privacy vs. Accountability
The tension in Oklahoma lawmakers’ minds is between protecting children’s privacy and collecting the information necessary to demonstrate each public school actually educates kids, said HB1989 cosponsor Jason Nelson.

The bill is intended to protect student privacy without being overly prescriptive with technologies that often change quickly, he said: “It can be a little tricky going in even with the scalpel and saying, ‘You can collect this for this purpose and not for that purpose.’ [Such a bill] would be a monstrosity that wouldn’t work. We want to know what data we have and why we have it to trigger public input to guide our actions over the next few years to ensure we’re being responsible for the data.”

The state spends some $5.6 billion to educate 660,000 K-12 schoolchildren, he noted.

“The state has to have data.… But certain data, like a Social Security number, there is no reason to have that at all,” Nelson said. “The school district needs student-level data, but I don’t know the state does, and certainly the federal government does not.”

HB1989 would also require the state Board of Education to report to the legislature annually on any new data it wants to collect, and to get legislative approval for any such expansion.

Whereas adults have the maturity to decide whether and how they want their personal information such as location, Google searches, and grocery shopping habits tracked, “No child does,” White said. “So stop that.” 


Image by Celia.