Student-Privacy Protection Focus of New York State Legislation

By Andrew Ujifusa — June 17, 2013 2 min read
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The controversy surrounding inBloom, a nonprofit organization which uses student data to improve personalized-learning options in classrooms, seems to have grown in recent months, as various states, including (as I’ve reported) Louisiana and Georgia, have distanced themselves from the group over concerns that student privacy would be endangered by inBloom’s work with third-party organizations like K-12 companies. As Stephanie Simon reported late last month for Reuters, Kentucky and Delaware also claimed to have backed away from previously announced partnerships with inBloom.

Now in New York, which perhaps is most closely associated with Atlanta-based inBloom, a Democratic lawmaker has introduced a bill to change the state’s approach to student privacy. But some of the consequences of the proposal may be unintended.

The legislation, profiled by GothamSchools reporter Geoff Decker on June 13, was introduced by Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, chairwoman of the N.Y. Assembly’s education committee. The bill would allow parents of students in the state public school system to opt out of the sharing of a student’s “personally identifiable” data, including “biometric data,” with any third party. The idea behind this legislation had a previous life as far back as 2011, in a bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, also a Democrat. But Nolan’s position on the education committee would seem to give the proposal more juice, and indeed her bill passed the committee last week.

As Simon reported, the New York State education department plans to upload data on its nearly 2.6 million students into the databases at inBloom. Even though the legislative session looks set to end June 20, leaving little time for the bill to progress, state K-12 officials expressed alarm about the plan from Nolan. Why? Because they say the impact of the bill would reach far beyond inBloom, and would impact all the other outside vendors who deal with the school system. (The bill’s provisions would not apply to student data shared by charter schools with nonprofit groups that helped found those schools.) District officials say that as a general rule, the sharing of such student information has been going on for years without any sort of outcry. The bill does not specifically mention inBloom.

“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 told Decker. “The proposed bill would render virtually impossible—or extraordinarily more expensive—much of the day-to-day data-management work of schools.”

Nolan said that the opt-out provision makes her bill a reasonable compromise. If the consternation about inBloom’s involvement with New York education increases, Nolan’s plan could get new life next year even if it dies this year.

By the way, inBloom devotes lengthy sections of its website to privacy issues and includes the topic in its frequently-asked-questions section. Among other statements, the group says it does not store Social Security numbers and is in compliance with FERPA.

So, while the plan to lessen the state’s involvement with inBloom (or at least reduce the number of students in its database) may not get anywhere in the Empire State this year, the bill does highlight the concerns some have expressed about the group.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.