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Jewish World Review May 31, 2001 / 9 Sivan, 5761

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow
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Consumer Reports

Protecting privacy from Uncle Sam -- UNCLE SAM'S motto should be "do as I say, not as I do." While Congress considers interfering with local educational decisions in the name of protecting students' privacy, the federal government routinely violates children's privacy. Uncle Sam should look after its own affairs before micro-managing thousands of local schools.

Americans increasingly worry about third parties prying into their affairs. Tapping into this sentiment are Senators Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who have proposed S.290, the so-called Student Privacy Protection Act to, as they put it, "increase parental involvement and protect student privacy." They are currently attempting to add their measure to S.1, the pending omnibus education bill, a companion of the legislation which just passed the house.

The Dodd/Shelby bill is superficially appealing: require state or local education agencies to notify parents about information-gathering activities and obtain "the parent's written permission for the disclosure." Dodd and Shelby may be sincere in their professed concern for students' privacy. But by targeting business partnerships, their proposal threatens what has become a good deal for American families. Public education is in crisis. Unfortunately, private and charter schools, vouchers, and privately funded scholarships are all political dynamite.

Business participation would seem to be less controversial. After all, companies have long provided everything from books to sports equipment, and assisted student fund-raising efforts. These, and especially newer, more innovative programs, allow firms to help hard-pressed parents and improve education.

For instance, today companies commonly supply computer software, video and educational magazines. By hitting schools with costly new requirements, Dodd/Shelby would discourage the development of such cooperative arrangements. Indeed, the measure would require voluminous paperwork just to maintain existing programs. The rules would be quite complicated. Schools might have to contact any Web page used by students that tracked "hits" or collected information in any way to see if the purpose was commercial. Dodd/Shelby would be yet another example of the sort of unfunded federal mandates on states and localities about which the Republicans who control Congress have long complained. Many local school districts would likely choose to abandon business initiatives rather than spend the extra money to comply and, even then, risk being found in violation of the rules.

Warns the National School Boards Association: "The amendment amounts to the federal government dictating a one-size-fits-all policy for local schools to work with businesses. Due to the complex and varied nature of these agreements, this is an issue that is best decided at the local level to ensure that the unique needs of the district are represented, and the values of the local community are reflected."

Residents of Des Moines and New York City likely have different views as to what constitutes a privacy violation and how best to prevent it. Uncle Sam should not set a national requirement binding these and other very different cities. Indeed, federalism allows the government closest to people to shape policies to meet local needs. Today, offended parents can turn to a multitude of elected officials: school board members, school superintendents, mayors, state legislators and others.

Might some states or localities nevertheless ignore parents' concerns? The federal government already enforces two privacy laws that set general standards for handling sensitive student information. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., rightly warns against "simply piling more federal regulations on top of old federal regulations."

Given the obvious lack of any need for Washington to meddle in local affairs, the proposal would seem to reflect an ideological animus by some against any kind of business involvement in education. Some activists oppose business doing anything other than pouring more money to the same old educational bureaucracy.

Perhaps the most curious aspect of Dodd/Shelby is that it ignores the greatest threat to everyone's privacy: prying by Washington. For instance, the Census Bureau asks all sorts of questions unrelated to counting the number of Americans. The Social Security number was originally supposed to be limited to providing Social Security benefits. Now the federal government uses the number to enforce draft registration and any number of other purposes.

Government intrusiveness involving school children is particularly offensive. The Centers for Disease Control surveys young students, including those under 10, about their sexual habits. Have they had sex with "both sexes," Washington wants to know? Did they consume alcohol or drugs before they "had sexual relations the last time?"

Of course, the CDC claims the answers to these questions are important. If so, the federal government should make its case to parents. Instead, Washington wants to meddle with local decisions. American education is failing. Business involvement in public education alone obviously isn't enough, but it offers one innovative approach to help children. Instead of getting in the way in the name of students' privacy, Washington should concentrate on cleaning up its own house.

JWR contributor Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. Comment by clicking here.


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