June 13, 2013
A legislative effort to give parents greater control over how schools share data about their children got renewed energy this week after sitting idle in the Assembly for months.
The progress has alarmed officials at the State Education Department, who assumed a bill to restrict data-sharing was dead. It has also raised concern among education groups whose members would be in charge of administrating the law.
Education Chair Catherine Nolan breathed new life into the issue last week when she nixed an old bill that had languished in the committee since March, despite picking up support from more than 60 lawmakers. She introduced her own, less extreme version, which sailed unanimously through the committee on Wednesday. With less than a week left in the legislative session, the bill’s chances of becoming law this year are slim, but the momentum means that it could be an issue next year.
Both versions aim to empower parents to decide how their child’s data should be shared with third-party vendors working with their school. The original bill would have required parental consent for student data to be shared, while Nolan’s bill would assume that data can be shared unless parents opt out of making their child’s information available to vendors.
The bills respond to growing concerns that a new database being used by the state, called inBloom, won’t adequately protect personally identifiable student information from being made public. The Gates Foundation developed the database to reduce the burden of data management on school districts and states. But districts can also decide to let private companies that it contracts have access to the database to help them develop their own education software, an arrangement that parents in New York and elsewhere have questioned.
“We think [the bill is] a reasonable compromise,” Nolan said. “We want to give parents options, but we also have to give school districts flexibility.”
But state and district education officials said the bill would do the opposite. They said the bill would cripple schools’ ability to function because data collected for many core services are managed by outside vendors.
“Everything from course scheduling to transportation to school lunches to high school transcripts for college applications would be impacted,” said State Education Commissioner John King. “The proposed bill would render virtually impossible — or extraordinarily more expensive — much of the day-to-day data management work of schools.”
Nolan’s bill would require that parents have access to an itemized list of services outsourced to private vendors at their school so they can choose which vendors can access their students’ data.
State officials said vendors could balk at working with districts in the future if they are required to build data management systems that must account for students whose parents have opted them out of certain data points.
Superintendents and the New York State School Boards Association are also opposed to the legislation.
“Districts have been providing data to third-party vendors for years without controversy,” said Bob Lowry, a spokesman for the New York State Council of School Superintendents.
Lowry said he worried that schools with students who opted out of sharing data for basic services required by law, such as busing and special education, would need to figure out how to deliver those services in-house, which he said could be a steep challenge.
“You might not be able to ensure that they get these special services,” Lowry said.
The city and state teachers unions did not respond to requests for comment.
Nolan said the law would not cause the sort of administrative headaches that critics are predicting. She said parents deserve the right to know about and control what kinds of student data vendors use.
“We really care about student privacy,” Nolan said. ”We think an opt-out is a reasonable thing that can be administered by state ed and school superintendents.”
Chances that the bill gets passed into law before the legislative session ends next week are extremely slim, since there no version of the bill in the Senate.
It’s unclear how the bill will proceed in the Assembly, despite its initial support. Speaker Sheldon Silver has previously indicated that he would not support legislative efforts to restrict data collection by third-party vendors.
A spokesman for Silver did not respond to requests for comment.