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Student data privacy bill moving through House would bring MN laws ‘into the 21st century’

Federal law prohibits private data on students from being disclosed to the wrong parties, but Rep. Sandra Feist (DFL-New Brighton) says Minnesotans need stronger laws offering more protections.

And she makes a good point.

The federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act was passed in 1974, when students records meant “pieces of paper in a locked filing cabinet,” she said.

“This bill will bring our student data privacy laws into the 21st century.”

The House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee on Tuesday approved HF341, as amended, 16-0 and sent it to the House Education Policy Committee. Sen. Karla Bigham (DFL-Cottage Grove) sponsors the Senate companion, SF2307, which awaits action by the Senate Civil Law and Data Practices Policy Committee.

Sponsored by Feist, the bill would prevent technology providers from selling or disseminating educational data and using it for any commercial purposes.

Schools would be required to notify parents and students of contracts with technology providers regarding curriculum, testing, or assessment and provide the parent or student an opportunity to opt-out of a program or activity.

Andy Liddell, co-founder of the Student Data Privacy Project, said the depth and breadth of the electronic data schools collect on students through, among other means, school-supplied laptops and in-school computers, is “shocking.”

Through contracts with schools, educational software companies currently collect, without parental consent, students’ names, ID numbers, email addresses, and attendance records, among other data, he said.

“I have seen firsthand how companies profit off of our children’s educational data,” Feist said.

She described how her daughter used an in-class math game that had minimal educational value and was “relentlessly marketing” parents to pay for a subscription.

A very common scenario is schools require students to use cloud-based applications such as Google Docs, Feist said, noting that the danger there is that no one really knows where information in those documents goes and how long it will exist on the internet.

The bill would also require schools to notify parents and students of contracts with technology providers regarding curriculum, testing, or assessment and provide the parent or student an opportunity to opt-out of the associated program or activity.

The opt-out provisions would place a huge burden on school districts, said Eric Simmons, director of technology at the Chisago Lakes School District.

“This bill’s proposed opt-out provisions for technology would create major disruptions to basic school functions that are not feasible,” he said.

He noted the provisions would force teachers to provide assignments and documents on multiple software platforms, and even develop two or more lesson plans to accommodate students’ opt-out choices.

Feist said she understands those concerns but noted the teacher’s union, Education Minnesota, supports the bill, and that assures her that teachers don’t see this as much of a problem.

A version of this bill was introduced in 2015, Feist said, and has been changed over the years to gain as much consensus as possible and that all sides have made compromises.

“The pandemic and the resulting sudden and dramatic expansion of remote learning has exacerbated an already urgent situation, and the time to act is now,” she said.

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