Friday, February 28, 2020

OCPA: Parents justified in student privacy concerns

Parents justified in student privacy concerns
By Jonathan Small

Recently, thousands of Oklahoma students’ names and home addresses were obtained from the Oklahoma Department of Education and used for mailers. Parents were understandably upset.

In Arizona, the state Department of Education released parent names and individual account information for more than 7,000 student-beneficiaries of a school-choice program. Parents were understandably upset.

But now Oklahoma lawmakers are telling parents not to worry about student privacy, even though newly passed legislation mandates reporting requirements that experts believe could allow identification of individual students.

House Bill 1230 imposes new regulations for the Lindsey Nicole Henry (LNH) Scholarship Program that include releasing LNH data by school site and recipient demographics including race, income, and disability. Families are rightfully concerned by those requirements because the legislation did not include student-privacy safeguards typically included in other reporting mandates.

It’s not unreasonable for parents to worry that it won’t take long for people to identify students by name if a report shows a private school has just a handful of LNH recipients and one is a low-income black child with autism.

Children served by LNH private-school scholarships either have special needs, such as autism, or are foster and adopted children. Many are survivors of abuse—including, at times, severe bullying in public schools that prompted suicide attempts before the LNH program provided an alternative. Why should the state make it possible for those children’s former tormentors to identify them and their new school? And why should the state allow anti-school-choice radicals to identify specific families? If you don’t think there’s reason for concern on that front, you have not seen the vitriol school-choice opponents aim at low-income families online.

LNH recipients are not unreasonable in expecting privacy to be safeguarded because those protections are given elsewhere to other students. For example, when state testing results are released by school district, the data is withheld in instances where the number of test-taking students is so low that reporting on results could allow identification by inference.

The children with special needs targeted by HB 1230 deserve comparable protections.

The Republican Party often presents itself as a champion of deregulation in the name of individual liberty and job creation. President Trump has slashed regulations at the federal level, which experts agree has contributed to strong economic growth. At the state level Gov. Kevin Stitt wants to cut regulations by 25 percent. So why has a GOP-controlled Legislature chosen to head the opposite direction when it comes to a program that serves needy children?

The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs believes in accountability. But the troubling provisions of HB 1230 do nothing to deter or identify potential fraud. They only create potential hardship for families that already face more than their fair share of challenges. To make Oklahoma a place where more families can thrive, Oklahoma policymakers should stand up for those families, not add to their burdens.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.

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