Education Dept.’s Stricter Background Checks Questioned

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Recently adopted policies requiring federal contractors to provide fingerprints and background information to the Department of Education and other agencies are generating mixed reactions from the education research community, ranging from grumbling acceptance to outright defiance.

Almost all the hundreds of researchers affected so far have complied with the department’s demand that they submit a fingerprint chart and fill out employment applications that asks whether the applicant has ever been convicted of a felony or has used drugs illegally in the previous year. At least one researcher has declined to undergo the background check.

The type of background checks used by the Education Department are now standard procedure for federal agencies hiring contractors who will have access to federal buildings or databases, said Katherine McLane, a department spokeswoman.

The rules, which are being phased in across the federal government, affect thousands of contractors, other federal officials say.

While most contractors accept the rules as just another condition for conducting federal business, one education researcher said that the procedures are unnecessary invasions of privacy.

“I’m very disturbed that privacy of people’s information is being eroded for no compelling reason,” said Andrew A. Zucker, a senior research scientist for the Concord Consortium, a Concord, Mass.-based nonprofit research group focused on educational technology.

“I believe in security clearances for classified information. If there were a compelling reason for doing this, I would.”

Last year, Mr. Zucker refused to comply with the new rules and lost the opportunity to conduct a study of middle school science achievement as a subcontractor for a regional federally funded education laboratory based at Pennsylvania State University.

At WestEd, more than 60 employees complied with the requests, said Max McConkey, the chief policy and communications officer for the San Francisco-based regional education lab.

“There was some grumbling about these new requirements,” Mr. McConkey said.

“But everyone involved did comply, with the recognition that they have become required conditions for doing federal contract work of any sort in this era of heightened awareness about national security.”

Standard Procedures

Federal agencies were required to implement new policies for background checks under a 2004 presidential directive titled “Policy for a Common Identification Standard for Federal Employees and Contractors,” or HSPD-12.

The goal was to make federal government facilities and computers more secure by making the policies for background checks more consistent, particularly because some contractors may work at several agencies, said Karen Evans, the administrator for E-government and information technology at the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Ms. Evans said the policy was crafted in response to security recommendations made by the 9/11 Commission, the influential bipartisan group that studied the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Kathy Dillaman, the associate director of the federal Office of Personnel Management’s investigative-services division, said last week that she was not familiar with the details of the Education Department’s policy, but that requiring fingerprints of contractors was “absolutely not” unusual among agencies seeking to comply with HSPD-12.

Last May, Mr. Zucker said, Penn State officials told him he would have to undergo the background check that included granting access to his credit and health records. Education Department officials later said that he wouldn’t need to provide authorization for a credit check or grant access to his doctors.

But Mr. Zucker declined to be fingerprinted or to answer any questions on the employment forms. He recently sent a letter to Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings protesting the policy. The letter had almost 100 signatures, not all of them from education researchers.

In a Jan. 17 letter to Mr. Zucker, an Education Department official outlined the reasons for the policy, and enclosed an internal document saying that the department is seeking personal information regarding a person’s “character, conduct, and loyalty to the United States as relevant to their association with the department.”

“It’s sad that the level of trust in society has gone way down … so we end up requiring all of this voluminous private, personal information,” said Mr. Zucker, who wrote a commentary published in Education Week in 2005 on his evaluation of a laptop initiative.

Vol. 26, Issue 24, Page 28

Published in Print: February 21, 2007, as Education Dept.’s Stricter Background Checks Questioned
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