Congress Pushes Parental Consent

Tuesday, May 9th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — School kids in Massachusetts tasting cereals and answering questions on them. Elementary students in New Jersey keeping personal journals for a marketing survey.

A bipartisan proposal in Congress would require that most public elementary and secondary schools get parents' written consent before collecting information from pupils for commercial purposes.

The proposal's Senate sponsors, Sens. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., cited those examples Tuesday and others, such as a technology firm that provides schools with free computers and Internet access and monitors students' online activity by age, gender and Zip code.

``More and more, schools are being perceived not just as centers of learning but also as centers of commercial research,'' Dodd said at a news conference.

In some schools, he suggested, ``The three Rs now stand for research, retail and resale'' and children are being used as ``marketing tools in the classroom.''

The national Parent Teacher Association has endorsed the student privacy proposal and a companion measure in the House.

``We feel that students should not be asked to relay private information as a condition of learning,'' PTA spokeswoman Patty Yoxall said by telephone from Chicago.

By contrast, groups representing school administrators and school board members have expressed opposition to the proposal.

It would have ``a chilling effect on the positive productive collaborations in which local schools and businesses are currently involved, by drastically increasing the administrative and financial responsibilities of the local school,'' the National School Boards Association and the American Association of School Administrators said in a joint statement.

And Dodd and Shelby said they had heard objections from some companies that have commercial contracts with schools.

``We've touched a money nerve,'' said Shelby, who is a leader of the recently formed bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus.

Dodd and Shelby spoke as the Senate debated changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provides money for schools to help improve poor children's grades and test scores, train teachers and other programs. Their proposal opened a new front in a widening legislative campaign over privacy, including measures designed to protect consumers' financial and medical information.

Dodd and Shelby said they planned to propose their student privacy measure as an amendment to the 35-year-old school funding act, which expires this year.

In the House, a parallel measure proposed by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., has been attached to that chamber's version of the school funding act.

The proposals would require all schools that receive money under the act — roughly 86 percent of the nation's public schools — to get parents' permission before collecting data from students that companies use for commercial purposes.

They also would require that parents be informed in writing of the data to be disclosed and to which companies, how the companies plan to use it, how much class time will be taken up by gathering the data and how much money, if any, the companies are paying the school under their contract.

The legislation would give ``parents a clear picture regarding what is going on in their children's classrooms and an opportunity to decide ... whether they want their kids to participate in them,'' Shelby said.