School & District Management

Obama Calls for Stronger Protections on Student-Data Privacy

By Benjamin Herold — January 20, 2015 4 min read

President Barack Obama proposed a new Student Digital Privacy Act last week that would aim to prevent companies from selling sensitive student information collected in schools and from using such data to engage in targeted advertising to children.

The proposed legislation will be modeled on recently passed state legislation in California. The president’s announcement also featured proposals for a new law aimed at protecting consumers’ privacy, including the establishment of a single national standard that companies must notify their customers within 30 days of any breach that results in the theft or misuse of personal data.

“If we’re going to be connected, then we need to be protected,” Mr. Obama said during a speech at the Federal Trade Commission.

Reaction to the proposal was largely favorable among privacy advocates and educator groups, but some in the ed-tech industry are concerned the proposed measure could stifle innovation and further confuse the student-data-privacy landscape, already governed by a messy patchwork of state and federal laws.

James P. Steyer, the founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that was influential in the passage of the recent California law, hailed the new proposal as a necessary complement to the Obama administration’s efforts to expand broadband access for schools.

“You cannot wire every classroom in America and put laptops and iPads in there without establishing clear and rigorous privacy protections,” Mr. Steyer said. “This is a major win for kids.”

Proposal Faces Hurdles

There are a number of potential hurdles to getting a strong new federal student-data-privacy law passed, however.

President Obama is unlikely to find much support for his policy priorities in the new Republican-controlled Congress, although student privacy is one area where he may be able to woo some GOP members.

And while Mr. Obama praised a voluntary initiative in which 75 companies have pledged to offer protections to students, industry groups were not thrilled with the proposal. “At a time when our nation has increasingly stiff global competition, we must balance privacy protection with the critical need for local schools and teachers to have access to advanced learning technologies,” said a statement from the Software & Information Industry Association, a Washington-based trade group.

One major worry expressed by the SIIA and other groups is how a proposed new Student Digital Privacy Act might interact with existing state laws. New student-data-privacy measures have been enacted in 21 states over the past year. It remains unclear if a new federal law would trump those statutes.

“There are multiple different ways that states have defined and circumscribed how student data needs to be handled,” said Douglas A. Levin, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, based in Glen Burnie, Md. “A new federal law could lead to a situation where those laws are in direct conflict. Or, if it doesn’t pre-empt state law, it could create an even more complicated playing field for companies.”

The California legislation upon which the new proposed federal law will be modeled is widely regarded as the strongest state-level response to date. The Student Online Personal Information and Protection Act, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, in September, prohibits operators of online educational services from selling student data and using such information to target advertising to students or to “amass a profile” on students for a noneducational purpose.

The state law also requires online service providers to maintain adequate security procedures and to delete student information at the request of a school or district.

But some data-privacy advocates, including the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, a recently formed group, argue that even that statute is riddled with loopholes.

Signing the Pledge

The industry pledge that President Obama praised is a project of the SIIA and the Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington think tank.

“We want to encourage every company that provides technology to our schools to join this effort,” the president said in his Jan. 12 remarks. “If you don’t, we intend to make sure that those schools and those parents know that you haven’t joined this effort.”

Among companies that have not signed the pledge are the technology giant Google and the global education company Pearson.

Google declined to comment on the proposed legislation or the pledge. Pearson didn’t refer to it in a statement the company released.

Mr. Obama also announced new tools from the U.S. Department of Education and its Privacy Technical Assistance Center. New “model terms of service” and new teacher-training assistance will be forthcoming, according to a fact sheet from the White House

The Data Quality Campaign, a Washington-based nonprofit that supports use of educational data to track student and school progress, described those efforts as encouraging.

Many terms of service put forward by educational technology companies are not written in any way that district officials, teachers, and parents will understand, said Paige Kowalski, the director of state policy and advocacy for the organization.

No specific timeline for either the new tools or the proposed legislation has yet been announced.

Mr. Obama expressed optimism, though, that something will get done.

“This should not be a partisan issue,” the president said.

Associate Editor Sean Cavanagh and Staff Writer Michele Molnar contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2015 edition of Education Week as President Obama Proposes Student-Data-Privacy Upgrade

Events

Jobs The EdWeek Top School Jobs Virtual Career Fair
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How to Power Your Curriculum With Digital Books
Register for this can’t miss session looking at best practices for utilizing digital books to support their curriculum.
Content provided by OverDrive
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Embracing Student Engagement: The Pathway to Post-Pandemic Learning
As schools emerge from remote learning, educators are understandably worried about content and skills that students would otherwise have learned under normal circumstances. This raises the very real possibility that children will face endless hours
Content provided by Newsela

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management More Than 1 Million Students Didn't Enroll During the Pandemic. Will They Come Back?
Education Week analyzed state data to gather a more comprehensive understanding of this year's enrollment loss.
6 min read
Students participate in class outside at the Woodland Pond School, a private school  located near Bangor, Maine. Maine experienced one of the nation's largest drops in student enrollment this school year, according to an EdWeek analysis.
Students participate in class outside at the Woodland Pond School, a private school located near Bangor, Maine. Maine experienced one of the nation's largest drops in student enrollment this school year, according to an EdWeek analysis.
Photo courtesy of Woodland Pond School
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Sponsor
Drive Improvement in Your School With Harvard’s Certificate in School Management and Leadership
Aubree Mills had two dilemmas she needed to address: One was recruiting and retaining good teachers at the Ira A. Murphy Elementary School
Content provided by Harvard Graduate School of Education
School & District Management Opinion Are Your Leadership Practices Good Enough for Racial Justice?
Scratch being a hero. Instead, build trust and reach beyond school walls, write Jennifer Cheatham and John B. Diamond.
Jennifer Cheatham & John B. Diamond
5 min read
Illustration of leadership.
Collage by Laura Baker/Education Week (Images: DigitalVision Vectors, iStock, Getty)
School & District Management We Pay Superintendents Big Bucks and Expect Them to Succeed. But We Hardly Know Them
National data is skimpy, making it hard to know what influences superintendents' decisions to move on, retire, or how long they stay. Why?
8 min read
Conceptual image of tracking with data.
marcoventuriniautieri/iStock/Getty