BUFFALO (AP) — Even as their students’ grades, attendance and other personal information are about to be fed into a new statewide database, district administrators and parents around New York say they remain unconvinced the information won’t creep out over time or hurt students later when they apply for college or work.
There are also questions about why the database pulling together hundreds of pieces of information in one place is needed, and a key state lawmaker has called for delaying the process set to start after Jan. 1.
New York has signed up with Atlanta-based inBloom, which has struggled to get other states to participate, to create a system that stores student information on servers in the so-called cloud, accessed through the Internet. It’s seen as a tool to track student progress, personalize instruction and identify students who may be in danger of not graduating. Parents can also check on how their children are doing.
But weeks of assurances by the state Education Department still haven’t satisfied critics’ privacy concerns. About three dozen of the state’s 695 districts say they won’t use the portal, forfeiting their shares of more than $700 million in federal Race to the Top funding won in 2010 and tied by the state to the database.
“Many districts still feel very strongly about this issue, and we feel that the answers we’re receiving from the state Education Department aren’t addressing our concerns,” said Pleasantville Superintendent Mary Fox-Alter, whose Westchester County district is among those that have withdrawn from Race to the Top.
“Just as we worry about the physical safety of our children, I’m worried about their personal security. What happens if there’s a data breach?” asked Karen Zevin, whose daughters went through the Croton-Harmon School District. A school board member there now, Zevin said the district has also opted out.
She, Fox-Alter and others questioned why the state is entrusting all of the information to a third party and say much of it is already available separately on different servers in New York, less vulnerable to a single breach.
“I think it’s a bad idea putting this all in one place,” Fox-Alter said.
An informal poll by the New York State School Boards Association released Wednesday found 75 percent of board members surveyed opposed sharing data with inBloom, Executive Director Timothy Kremer said.
InBloom was founded in February with $100 million in grant money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corp. and drew early interest from several states. But New York is the only one fully involved.
“We’re given assurances about firewalls and encryption,” said Ken Mitchell, superintendent of the South Orangetown Central School District in Rockland County, which also has opted out.
But hacking is not the only threat, he said. Administrators worry that some 400 elements of data tracking discipline, standardized test scores and special-education needs could be subject to data-mining and eventually be used for marketing or sought by colleges during competitive admissions processes.
Page 2 of 2 - State officials say its contract with vendors and state and federal law prohibit the sale or use of student data for anything outside the agreement and parents won’t be able to review the information of anyone but their children.
The vast majority of school districts will use the portal, said Ken Wagner, associate state education commissioner, and have complied with instructions to choose a method of access from one of three available “dashboards.”
Districts that instead withdrew from Race to the Top must return any unspent grant money and will not have access to the database. Their districts’ data still will be sent to inBloom, Wagner said.
“The only difference for districts that elected not to be part of Race to the Top ... they won’t be able to view their own data within that system,” he said.
But Fox-Alter said the essential information is already available other ways. Districts giving up the funding while their data still goes to the cloud are staging a protest they hope will generate action, Kremer said.
On Thursday, Sen. John Flanagan, chairman of his chamber’s education committee, called for a yearlong moratorium on the data collection so lawmakers can address the critics’ issues. He said he expects cooperation in the state Assembly, which has also expressed concern.
He said Friday there are questions about why certain data needs to be collected and the problem of putting it all in one place.
“The parents have not given their consent to the transfer of their children’s information to a national database. They had no knowledge of this,” said West Seneca Superintendent Mark Crawford, whose western New York district also withdrew from Race to the Top. The district is now exploring ways to control the data to be included in inBloom, he said.
“We don’t need to send this to a third party to have them turn around our data and tell us who’s at risk for dropping out,” Crawford said. “We know our children very well.”
Wagner said the state has maintained a statewide database since 2004, and many districts already contract with third-party vendors to provide software for things like report cards and transportation. He said inBloom will fill the need for a parent portal in the roughly half of districts without one and give those districts with existing portals a choice.
State lawyers are due to respond this week to a legal challenge by 12 New York City parents seeking to block the state from sharing student information for the database, which is expected to go live in March.
Associated Press writer George M. Walsh contributed from Albany.