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Education commissioner faces bipartisan grilling by members of state Assembly

The state’s Education Commissioner John King faced a bi-partisan grilling by liberal and conservative  members of the Assembly at a hearing regarding growing concerns about student privacy.

As part of the conversion to the national Common Core standards, school districts in New York are required to place more student records, transcripts, and even behavioral information, like absences and suspensions, in online data bases. The data collection is in many cases run by a private vendor, not the local school or the state education department.  

Many parents, teachers and school administrators are concerned that the data might not be secure, and they point to examples where the safeguards have been breached. They also worry that any transgressions young children might make could be improperly made public, and follow the child into adulthood.

Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Cathy Nolan, summed up the growing worry.

“The fear that everyone has is that you were a jerk when you were in high school, you do something stupid and you get suspended,” Nolan said. “And now, five years later, you’re going for a job, and Big Brother has found out that when you were a junior in high school you did something stupid.“

King says the data is encrypted, and violators would be punished, but he and other state education officials could not immediately say what the exact sanctions would be.

Assemblyman Danny O’Donnell used his own personal history as an example. He says his mother got cancer when he was a child, and he and his brothers and sisters missed a lot of school. He asked King whether a family in a similar situation could opt out of having that data recorded into the Internet-based system run by a private company, and just keep the information within the local school.

“If they then transfer that information to somebody else, they lose control of that information,” O’Donnell said.

King says there’s really no practical way to allow that kind of an opt out.

“We all agree it’s important for the school, the district, the state to have attendance data,” King said. “So that’s going to involve third party providers. The key is what are the security provisions in place.”

The Assembly Education Committee wanted to ask the largest private company currently collecting data on students, known as inBloom, about how it protects the student’s records, but inBloom refused to testify. Nolan says she hasn’t ruled out a subpoena.

Nolan and O’Donnell, both Democrats, are among the legislature’s most liberal members. But conservative-leaning lawmakers are equally upset. Republican Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin asked King about an incident in the Sachem School district on Long Island earlier this month, where student records were allegedly hacked by someone with access to the system.

“How is that student made whole if their data is breached?” McLaughlin asked. “Because once it’s out there, it’s out there.”

King answered that the data was held at the local district, and not entered into a private company’s system.

Afterward, McLaughlin said he did not hear anything from King that put him at ease. He says the roll out of the Common Core standards in general, which involve additional tests for students, has been horrendous.

“They view this as a revolution in education,” said McLaughlin, referring to the state education officials. “But the revolution that’s occurring is that the parents in New York state are waking up to this nightmare, saying enough is enough."

King, speaking to reporters afterward, admits the message about what the department believes are the benefits of using data collection companies like inBloom, has not been getting out.  

“What’s clear is that there’s a lot of misinformation about inBloom, about the data system that the state has in general,” King said.

King says inBloom uses state of the art encryption and other precautions. But he says he’s open to talking with the legislature about increasing penalties for security breaches.