Lawmakers Push for Parental Consent on Commercialism in Schools

Three members of Congress—Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.—are spearheading an effort to require schools to get parents’ consent before they accept free computer equipment and internet services from companies. In exchange for such gifts, the legislators argue, schools allow the companies to gather valuable marketing information from students.

“If parents do not want their children to be objects of market research firms while in school, they should have the right to say ‘no,'” Miller said in April when the House education committee added a parental consent provision to a larger education policy bill. The legislation would require schools to get parental permission before a company can collect personal information from students and use it for commercial purposes. Schools that don’t comply could lose their eligibility for federal funding.

But education groups and ed-tech vendors fear the proposed legislation could threaten valuable partnerships between schools and businesses that have given students access to technology they might not otherwise have. They say the issue of parental consent is best left for local school officials to decide with input from the community.

Even an opponent of the growing commercialism in schools has issued a report denouncing the congressional effort. “This legislation says it’s OK to exploit kids if you get permission from their parents,” said Nancy Willard, director of the Responsible Netizen project at the University of Oregon’s Center for Advanced Technology in Education.

One company that could be affected is the San Ramon, Calif.-based ZapMe! Corp., which offers free computers and internet service to schools in exchange for the opportunity to advertise to kids on its web browser. ZapMe! says it does not collect any personally identifiable information from students, only their screen name, age, and location. This data is supplied to advertisers in aggregate form, a company spokesman said.

Political squabbling over education bills and the short amount of time left in the current congressional session could delay lawmakers’ effort to pass the parental consent law until next year.

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