Student data sparks controversy

Jason France, of Baton Rouge, says he tried to prevent the state Department of Education from turning over sensitive information about his daughter to a national database.

“The data may not be correct; that is one problem,” France said.

“What happens if your kids’ information is incorrect and it is negative?” he added. “You would never be able to fix it. That is one of the unintended consequences.”

The data sharing was touted by state Superintendent of Education John White and others as a way to aid teachers.

But concerns by France and other parents have already helped spark the cancellation of the state’s contract with a group called inBloom, which is supported in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Now the state is launching a task force to try to find ways to balance school needs with rising concerns about privacy, especially amid concerns that students could be traumatized, or worse, if delicate information falls into the wrong hands.

Schools and school districts have long collected information about students, including Social Security numbers, ethnicity, date of birth, family income indicators, medical issues, attendance and other information.

The dispute is whether the benefits of the data sharing are outweighed by the risks that the data will fall into the hands of employers, for-profit firms and even hackers.

“This is totally irresponsible,” said Deborah Sachs, who lives in Mandeville.

The Sachs family has asked the state and St. Tammany Parish school system officials not to share information about their daughter Rachael Sachs, a 16-year-old student at Mandeville High School. That includes name, date of birth, Social Security number, pictures and health information.

Rachael Sachs made an appeal to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education last month. “I want you to understand that what may seem inconsequential to adults could be devastating to teenagers,” she said.

White, while backing the task force, generally has downplayed worries by France and others, including charges that he has failed to take the steps needed to cancel the state’s agreement with inBloom.

He told BESE that the state takes elaborate steps to keep the student data private, including digital firewalls, private “tunnels” between the state and local school districts when information is shared, and encryption methods to prevent data from being intercepted.

InBloom officials say it brings together data, content and tools educators need for personalized learning, and does so with an emphasis on the security of the data.

White said the dispute arose because, if the state is compiling information about students, should it be available to help teachers?

Jim Garvey, vice president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, represents St. Tammany Parish and other areas where parents are voicing concerns.

One of the worries, Garvey said, is sensitive student information stored on servers that can be hacked. Another is the state giving student information to nonprofits like inBloom as well as for-profit companies, Garvey said.

At the same time, he added, the state routinely gives firms access to student test and other data, such as results that showed up in a recent report on charter school performance. “A lot of people don’t realize that inBloom is not that much different from what has been going on in Louisiana,” Garvey said.

France, who formerly worked in data management at the state Department of Education, said 2 or 3 percent of student IDs included errors and that sharing information about Louisiana students with a national data base runs the same risk.

“Even under the best circumstances, according to the contract, they can sell the information to another party, or hand it over to another nonprofit, and the state doesn’t even have a say,” he said.

Lee Barrios, a retired teacher in St. Tammany Parish, told BESE that the information sharing “is nothing but a marketing ploy financed by Bill Gates” that could have an adverse impact on future job prospects for students.

“Once the data goes out, there are all sorts of ramifications,” Barrios said.