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Education Reporter

Buckeye State Parents Can't Buck Big Brother
COLUMBUS, OH - The Ohio Education Department is setting up a database to collect 43 bits of information on each of the state's 1.8 million public school students, including their social security numbers, mothers' maiden names, race, eye color, places of birth, immunization dates, and much more. The Statewide Student Identifier System (SSIS) will assign each student a personal identification number so that test scores and other academic information can be stored in the database.

The consulting firm Pricewaterhouse- Coopers is being paid $1.5 million to build and maintain the database. The firm will assign each student an identification number linking each student with his or her personal and academic data. State officials will have access to students' personal data linked to their I.D. numbers, but not their names.

A spokesman for the Ohio Education Department told the Akron Beacon Journal (4-19-02): "Ultimately, this will allow us to see what students need help and what programs are effective, while at the same time keeping student names private." He added that the database would help the state track student mobility and offer school districts more accurate data.

Not everyone in Ohio is happy about the new system, including many parents and school district officials. The Beacon Journal reported that Akron school officials called the database "troubling" and admitted they "are suspicious of the state's motives." School superintendent Sylvester Small observed that parents and the general public "would be outraged if they knew the type of information the state was requiring on their kids."

Other Ohio school officials also expressed concern. Some wonder whether law enforcement officers will be able to access the data for criminal investigations and whether parents will have any control over the release of sensitive personal information on their children, such as behavioral or disciplinary problem details.

The new education law (H.R. 1) mandates that students be given notice and allowed to opt out before a third party can access their personal data, but experts note that this provision does not protect individuals from dangers such as data theft. Chris Hoofnagle, legislative counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told CNS news that "Where entities collect excessive information, they expose people to risk."

For at least the past five years, many school districts and state education departments have been developing electronic data collection systems for student information. In 2000, the Fairfax, VA public schools completed an $11 million computer database that reportedly stores 1,200 pieces of information on each of the district's 150,000 students. An article in Business Week stated (3-16-00) that these data include parents' salaries, records of behavioral and disciplinary problems, details about learning disabilities, student photos, teachers' report-card comments, and mental-health records.

In 1999, the Massachusetts Department of Education unveiled its Student Information Management System (SIMS) which it had been quietly developing for three years. (See Education Reporter, Oct. 1999.) SIMS creates permanent records on all Massachusetts public school students, and makes information that previously remained under school district jurisdiction available to the state.

According to Business Week, the U.S. Education Department has organized a nationwide data-exchange program ("under a 1994 congressional mandate") that makes student information "available to other schools, universities, government agencies and, potentially, to employers." A department spokesman stated: "Nobody is consciously trying to build Big Brother, but as these databases develop and start 'speaking' to each other, a national student database is the logical and desired outcome."

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