Schools would have to ask for parents’ permission before any student information could be collected and used for commercial purposes, and they’d have to develop and adopt a policy with parents concerning in-school commercial activities, under a bipartisan bill introduced into the Senate Feb. 8.
The bill, called the Student Privacy Protection Act and sponsored by Sens. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., and Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., aims to involve and inform parents about commercialism in schools.
According to a September 2000 report by the General Accounting Office (GAO), tight budgets have forced many schools to seek alternative revenue sources to pay for new technology or sponsor student activities. As a result, schools are permitting their classrooms to be used for marketing, the GAO report found.
“More and more, schools are being perceived not just as centers for learning, but centers for consumer research,” said Dodd, who added that the bill stemmed from the GAO’s investigation. “Our children should be instilled with knowledge, not tapped for information on their spending habits.”
From ads on the sides of buses or internet browsers, to soft-drink sponsorships, to student surveys, commercialism is becoming increasingly prevalent in schools.
“Many schools enter into commercial contracts with advertisers because, as the GAO found, they are strapped for cash,” Dodd said. “Schools often are faced with two poor choicesprovide computers, books, and other educational … equipment with commercial advertising, or not at all.”
Channel One, the most often cited example, offers schools free equipment and a daily news program in exchange for showing television ads to students. Thirty-eight percent of U.S. middle and high schools are connected to Channel One, the GAO report found.
ZapMe!, which is now rStar Networks, gave schools up to 15 computers with 17-inch monitors, internet access, and a printer in exchange for continuously displaying ads on their computer screens. Though rStar Networks continues to support ZapMe!-installed machines, the company does not offer new contracts to schools, and schools that originally signed up for the service now have to pay for the equipment.
The new bill wouldn’t outlaw these types of practices; instead, it would make sure parents are aware of them and are part of the decision-making process. According to the GAO report, not all districts disclose the details of these agreements to parents, and many parents aren’t aware these kinds of activities are going on.
“This bill would return to parents the right to protect their children’s privacy,” Dodd said.
“It does not ban advertising, nor does it ban market research. It simply requires that, before a researcher can start asking a young student to provide personal information, that researcher must obtain parental consent or its equivalent.”
Schools would have to explain to parents who will collect such information, how it will be used, and how much class time the process will consume.
A similar law, called the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), has been in effect since April 2000. COPPA requires web sites that collect personal information from children ages 12 and under to get parents’ permission first. The Student Privacy Protection Act would go a step further and apply to any collection of information for marketing purposes at any K-12 school.
Also, the bill would force schools to develop commercialism policies in consultation with parents. All parents must be informed of the school’s commercialism policy, as well as any changes or exceptions that alter that policy.
“I do not personally see the harm in letting parents know what’s in the schools,” said Lori Cole, executive director of the Eagle Forum, a pro-family, grassroots organization. “I think the more we get parental involvement in schools, the better.”
Sen. Christopher Dodd
Sen. Richard Shelby
The Eagle Forum