You’ve heard of Big Oil and Big Tobacco. Now get ready for Big Parent.
data mining of their children. In a frenzy of activity, they’ve catapulted student privacy — an issue that was barely on anyone’s radar last spring — to prominence in statehouses from New York to Florida to Wyoming.
A months-long review by POLITICO of student privacy issues, including dozens of interviews, found the parent privacy lobby gaining momentum — and catching big-data advocates off guard. Initially dismissed as a fringe campaign, the privacy movement has attracted powerful allies on both the left and right. The American Civil Liberties Union is pushing for more student privacy protection. So is the American Legislative Exchange Council, the organization of conservative legislators.
The amateur activists have already claimed one trophy, torpedoing a privately run, $100 million database set up to make it easier for schools to share confidential student records with private companies. The project, known as inBloom, folded this spring under tremendous parent pressure, just 15 months after its triumphal public launch.
Now, parents are rallying against another perceived threat: huge state databases being built to track children for more than two decades, from as early as infancy through the start of their careers.
Promoted by the Obama administration, the databases are being built in nearly every state at a total cost of well over $1 billion. They are intended to store intimate details on tens of millions of children and young adults — identified by name, birth date, address and even, in some cases, Social Security number — to help officials pinpoint the education system’s strengths and weaknesses and craft public policy accordingly.
The Education Department lists hundreds of questions that it urges states to answer about each child in the public school system: Did she make friends easily as a toddler? Was he disciplined for fighting as a teen? Did he take geometry? Does she suffer from mental illness? Did he go to college? Did he graduate? How much does he earn?
“Every parent I’ve talked to has been horrified,” said Leonie Haimson, a New York mother who is organizing a national Parent Coalition for Student Privacy. “We just don’t want our kids tracked from cradle to grave.”
Eager to support technological innovation and wary of new regulations, Congress has taken little notice of parent concerns. But state legislators have raced to respond.
In the past five months, 14 states have enacted stricter student privacy protections, often with overwhelming bipartisan support, and more are likely on the way. None of the bills address all the concerns parents have raised, but the latest iterations — in Louisiana and New Hampshire — take strong steps to limit the scope of state databases and restrict the use of information collected on students.
All told, at least 105 student privacy bills were introduced this year in 35 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“Our voices are getting stronger,” said Rachael Stickland, an energy-efficiency analyst who had never worked on anything more political than a community garden until she began organizing a student privacy campaign in Colorado. “We are being heard.”
The POLITICO review found ed tech entrepreneurs and school reformers both bewildered by and anxious about the backlash — and struggling to craft a response.
Many said they had always assumed parents would support their vision: to mine vast quantities of data for insights into what’s working, and what’s not, for individual students and for the education system as a whole.
“People took for granted that parents would understand [the benefits], that it was self-evident,” said Michael Horn, a co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, an education think tank.
Instead, legitimate questions about data security have mixed with alarmist rhetoric in a combustible brew that’s “spreading like wildfire” on social media, said Aimee Rogstad Guidera, executive director of the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit advocacy group for data-driven education.
That fear, Guidera said, “leads to people saying, ‘Shut it down. No more.’”
Guidera hopes to counter the protests by circulating videos and graphics emphasizing the value of data. But she acknowledges the outrage will be hard to rein in.
Could the parent lobby scuttle a data revolution that’s been championed by the White House, pushed by billionaire philanthropists and embraced by reformers of both parties as the best hope to improve public education? “I do have that concern,” Guidera said. “Absolutely.”
WHISPERS OF ‘BIG BROTHER’
When he heard about the state databases, retired math teacher John Eppolito got curious. He wanted to know what information his home state of Nevada had collected on his four children. So he requested their records.
The state’s response: No such records exist. At least, no records as the law defines the term, said Judy Osgood, a spokeswoman for the Nevada Department of Education.
While the database stores “literally millions of pieces of data” about Nevada students, it’s not kept in a format that allows officials to easily extract the complete file on any one child, Osgood said. The department estimated it would cost $10,000 in staff time to respond to Eppolito’s request. The state attorney general issued a formal opinion that it did not have to go to those lengths.
Nevada is not alone. Just 14 states make student-level data easily accessible to parents, according to the Data Quality Campaign.
That opacity infuriates parents and spurs dark whispers about Big Brother.
“We don’t know what they’re tracking and we don’t know what the implications are going to be for these children in the future,” Eppolito told TheBlaze TV. “Going for jobs in the future, trying to get into college — we’re in uncharted territory and we just don’t know the implication it’s going to have for the children. We need to slow down.”
Database advocates say there’s nothing sinister about the projects. On the contrary, they see them as a prosaic — if powerful — tool for improving public policy.
Do kids who struggle with mastering emotions as toddlers get suspended more often than their peers as teens? Are they more likely to drop out of high school? End up in low-wage jobs? And which interventions, at age 3 or 4, might improve their trajectory? The hope is that databases will answer those questions.
Advocates also talk with excitement about using the data to identify an individual student’s precise needs — and the best way to meet them.
“The vision is, this changes outcomes,” Guidera said.