Student access for recruiters sparks debate

Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) has tried for years to limit military recruiters’ access to high school students, and the former teacher may finally have his chance now that Democrats control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Honda has once again introduced legislation that seeks to undo a lesser-known provision in President Bush’s 2002 No Child Left Behind law, which Congress is expected to reauthorize in the next year or so.

His efforts have inspired House Republicans to back competing legislation that would more or less keep the policy intact.

Under the law, high schools receiving federal money are required to make student information available to military recruiters, unless parents specifically inform the school that they do not want their child contacted.

Honda wants the policy changed dramatically so that schools can only give out the information if parents tell them it is OK. Parents, the lawmaker says, should have the option of “opting in” to the program, because too often they are not aware or confused by their right to “opt out.”

Freshman Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), a Marine Corps veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, acknowledges that some schools have done a poor job informing parents of their options, but he strongly defends the policy. His bill would essentially keep the policy as it is, with new language intended to strengthen notification requirements.

He has the support of House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), who chaired the House Education and the Workforce Committee when the No Child law was drafted, and that panel’s current ranking member, Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.).

The contrasting pieces of legislation highlight the debate over recruitment at a time when the White House is planning to grow the size of the military over the next few years.

Schools are required only to provide a single notice to parents: in a letter or, obscurely, in a student handbook, Honda wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter earlier this year seeking support for his legislation.

“The process confuses many parents and students, who may not understand the many forms that are sent home, or who may overlook the single notice in the volume of materials that are sent home during the early weeks of the school year,” he wrote.

Hunter’s legislation would give parents the right to safeguard their child’s privacy, if they choose, but would prevent schools from establishing “opt-in” policies that make their information off-limits if they don’t.

Supporters of the current law have argued that it has become increasingly difficult to recruit in some schools that have developed a strong counter-recruitment movement. Some have complained that students are encouraged by outside organizations to opt out of the recruitment information without their parents’ consent. Some school districts, they argue, are trying to circumvent the law by implementing an opt-in process, through which all student information is withheld unless parents send in a release authorization form.

But detractors of the law say it violates students’ and their families’ privacy, because the current system has no defined process of allowing parents to opt out, and as a result many schools are providing student information to recruiters without parental notification.

Honda’s bill is backed by the National Parent Teacher Association and the National Education Association.

Meanwhile, a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report published at the end of January argued that the military recruitment provisions under No Child Left Behind do not violate a student’s right to privacy.

“Neither statutory nor constitutional analysis appears to support this argument,” wrote Jody Feder, a CRS legislative attorney. From a statutory perspective, the provisions are consistent with a longstanding law protecting the educational privacy rights of students, Feder said. Likewise, Feder added, the provisions “do not appear to raise constitutional concerns.”

According to an information sheet compiled by Honda’s office, the law protecting students’ privacy rights says that only one “single notice provided through a mailing, student handbook, or other method” is sufficient. “In other words, there is no guarantee that the single notification is sufficient to actually help the parent understand that the school may give away their child’s personal information,” the information sheet states.

Honda is seeking other vehicles to pass his legislation even before the No Child Left Behind reauthorization comes up. Both Honda’s and Hunter’s bills have been referred to the Education panel. Hunter’s measure is also under consideration in the Armed Services Committee.

Honda’s bill so far has 28 Democratic co-sponsors; Hunter’s has 37 Republican co-sponsors.