LI parents fight student cloud database, cite privacy concerns

(L-R) Pamela Verity with her children Skylar, 10, (L-R) Pamela Verity with her children Skylar, 10, Douglass, 14, and Luke, 12. Verity is part of a group that opposes the data collection methods. (Oct. 16, 2013)

 Photo Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

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Angry parents worried about their children's privacy are fighting New York State's planned turnover of 2.3 million public school students' names and records to a private, high-tech corporation that will store and manage the records within a computerized "cloud" service.

The release of data to inBloom Inc., a nonprofit based in Atlanta, will include information on about 400,000 students on Long Island and is set to occur this fall or winter, officials said.

New York is emerging as the nation's foremost testing ground for inBloom as other states -- where parents also have protested -- back out or sit on the fence. The aggressive campaign against inBloom by thousands of tweeters and bloggers is gaining political traction even as the project's defenders strongly assert that it offers a superior level of data protection.

The service is designed to store massive amounts of data and is supported by $100 million from software billionaire Bill Gates' family foundation. The Carnegie Corp., another foundation, also backs the initiative.

In addition, New York State is investing more than $50 million in technology to support the system. Data currently are kept on state computer systems.

The idea behind inBloom is that it provides a single, convenient source of information on students' test scores, disciplinary records, disabilities and other vital subjects. Once the system is fully in operation -- possibly by spring -- school administrators, teachers, parents, students and others with valid passwords would be able to select and view data.

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Local opposition is part of a larger movement against what many perceive as New York State's overemphasis on student testing. Federal officials pushed for much of the intensified testing and electronic upgrades in return for $700 million in Race to the Top funds.

 

Parents distrustful

Many parents said they dislike the idea of entrusting their children's sensitive personal information to a nongovernmental agency -- even though the corporation in this case is a nonprofit agency that counts former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings on its board of directors.

"This information is being taken out of the hands of local school districts," said Pamela Verity of Commack, a mother of three. "It's a very dangerous situation."

Verity, like many other parents, supports a proposed state law that would allow families to bar districts from providing student data to inBloom and other third parties.

State education officials, who have worked with inBloom since 2011 to establish the "cloud" project, said parents' fears were unwarranted.

InBloom will never release student information without permission from local districts, state and corporate officials said, and the data cannot be sold. The service will provide a high degree of data security through sophisticated encryption, they said.

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"One of the biggest surprises for me is how little some of the people concerned about this project understand," said Ken Wagner, the state's deputy education commissioner for educational technology, who spent 12 years as a school psychologist and administrator on the Island before taking a state post.

"I think that, when people are thoughtful, they'll realize there are privacy protections in place and that this really needs to move forward," Wagner said.

InBloom defenders also noted that local districts have long turned over student data to private software companies, which provide help in organizing bus routes, class schedules and the like. InBloom simply can manage this information more efficiently and cheaply than the state's nearly 700 school districts can do on their own, they said.

InBloom's potential goes far beyond providing help with bus schedules, its creators say.

Experts said they envision the day, for example, when parents using a single website password will be able to view changes in their children's test scores over six, eight or even 12 years. Parents also will be able to check the website for "warning flags" -- early signals that students may have skipped classes or failed to turn in homework.

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"Because of inBloom, parents no longer have to count on infrequent parent/teacher conferences or quarterly A-F report cards to stay abreast of how their children are doing in school," said Adam Gaber, a corporate spokesman.

The state Education Department, in order to help with this project, is spending more than $50 million to develop a sign-on portal and related technology. The portal is a website entry point where parents and others will be able to draw on data stored in the inBloom cloud.

 

Electronic 'dashboards'

School districts, meanwhile, will choose private contractors to provide electronic "dashboards" that will display such data. Federal grants to the state also will be used to pay for the dashboards.

Many parents fear that sensitive information, such as their children's disciplinary and medical records, could wind up in the hands of college admissions officers or prospective employers. Even regional school leaders who see some potential in the inBloom project voice concern that the Education Department has not specified exactly how long student data will remain on file.

"How do we know that the information's not going to be used in 15 or 20 years?" said Stacey Young, a Garden City nursery-school teacher and mother of three. "Something they did as a 10-year-old is going to hurt them the rest of their life."

Parents also objected to the involvement in the project of a subsidiary of publisher Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. The subsidiary built part of a "platform" -- a combination of computer hardware and software -- upon which inBloom is based.

Both inBloom executives and New York State officials said the subsidiary's involvement is nearly over, and that they have given neither News Corp. nor its subsidiary any access to student data.

In response to parent protests, the State Assembly approved a bill last spring that would have empowered parents to withhold student records from inBloom. State Senate leaders have not yet announced whether they will support a similar measure during the legislative session that begins in January. But a Senate committee is holding public hearings across the state on the intertwined issues of student privacy and testing.

"Anything that would allow a private corporation to use government data to target a kid or family is wrong," said state Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola), who is sponsoring a measure that parallels the Assembly bill.

Local school leaders are concerned that such legislation could go too far, blocking them from sharing student data with local contractors for routine tasks such as scheduling. Representatives of both the New York State School Boards Association and the New York State Council of School Superintendents have argued in favor of flexibility.

"The way I feel about it is that solutions ought to fit the problem," said Robert Lowry, deputy director of the superintendents' group.

 

A way to compromise

Some educators said they see a middle way to address student privacy issues. Thomas Rogers, superintendent of Nassau BOCES, suggested at a recent legislative hearing that the state establish a public oversight board to review enforcement of privacy rules.

Whatever ultimately happens in New York could well shape the future of inBloom and the nation's $9-billion-a-year educational technology industry, experts said.

New York is by far the biggest state participant in the project, with more than 600 school districts involved. Illinois and Colorado have a few districts participating. Louisiana has backed out of the initiative; five other states are limiting their involvement and have no local districts piloting use of inBloom.

"This project needed to stay alive to demonstrate some success, if it were to have any chance of spreading," said David Carr, an editor-at-large for InformationWeek, an online news service that covers technology. "And that's really the question in New York."

 

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of InBloom's corporate spokeman.

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