We must support parental choice for student data
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Technology utilized by an effective teacher helps every student learn to the best of his or her ability by taking advantage of opportunities not previously available. Ideally, teachers can also use educational resources to tailor lesson plans for individual students and provide a personalized learning experience based on academic ability or special needs. Many of these opportunities rely on vendors contracted by schools to provide technology and software programs and services. These companies take their responsibilities seriously, and educators and parents partner with them for best outcomes for students.

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The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation will soon be considering the SAFE KIDS (Safeguarding American Families from Exposure by Keeping Information and Data Secure) Act, sponsored by Sens. Steven Daines (R-Mont.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). The bill provides strong protections to ensure parents and schools can be sure that vendors are handling student data responsibly. However, like California’s SOPIPA (the Student Online Personal Information Protection Act) — the first state-level comprehensive student privacy law, which set the model for many that followed — the current bill falls short on one key point when it comes to trusting parents to make the final decision on when and where to share their child's educational information outside of the school environment.

The SAFE KIDS Act does provide a limited exception, allowing parents to request that data be shared with colleges, to seek scholarships and financial aid, or for future employment. But parents may want to make their child's data available for many additional purposes, which the current law does not allow. Parents may wish to send their child's record to a tutoring program, to a college mentoring program or other outside educational support services. The limitation is particularly relevant for children with disabilities or learning challenges, some of the most active users of multiple resources outside the school. A parent's authority to advocate for his or her child should not be limited to a narrow list of categories, and should certainly not be banned entirely.

Many states have legislated on student privacy in the last two years, and some recognized this opportunity, passing legislation that allows a parent to tell a vendor to send their student's data to programs or options they expressly choose. A model bill drafted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and introduced in a number of states similarly allows parents to direct a vendor to send data to the services they select, as long as parents gave very specific permission and the information is subject to strict protections.

There are valid concerns: that parents may not realize or understand everything they've been asked to share, to whom the data will be sent or all the purposes the data can be used for. However, the right solution is not to completely prohibit parental consent and make it illegal, but simply to make it rigorous and informed, and ensure any data shared will only be used for expressly authorized purposes.

Laws that restrict that right are putting fear of the unknown ahead of real opportunities for schools and families to partner to ensure the progress of students. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) — the current national law that governs schools use of data, but not vendors — already gives parents the right to access their child's student records. Parents, as those most in-tune with their individual child's needs, have the right to be an active partner and make the final decision about additional sharing and use of their child's information.

Polonetsky is executive director and co-chair of the Future of Privacy Forum. Leong is senior counsel and director of operations at the Future of Privacy Forum.

For more on this issue, read the Future of Privacy Forum's paper, "Supporting Parental Choice for Student Data."


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.