Parent group mobilizes against student data warehouse

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Kurt Hilgendorf speaks about InBloom to parents at a forum on student data privacy.

Kurt Hilgendorf speaks about InBloom to parents at a forum on student data privacy.

Parents were warned about potential privacy threats posed by a planned state student data system at a forum Thursday night organized by Parents United for a Responsible Education (PURE). Julie Woestehoff, executive director for PURE, claimed that the Illinois State Board of Education’s partnership with non-profit InBloom could lead to student’s entire scholastic history being susceptible to a data security breach or becoming the property of third-party companies. 

(Editor’s note: A copy of a letter sent by CPS to PURE regarding InBloom can be found below.)

Woestehoff has put together a number of organizations against the data storehouse including ACLU Illinois, which would provide assistance in a potential lawsuit. “Clearly we reached out to ACLU for their legal expertise,” Woestehoff said in an interview after Thursday night’s forum at Fosco Park field house on the Near South Side.  

The meeting was largely comprised of parents, who expressed alarm about the data portal but also seemed galvanized to fight the idea. “I think InBloom is a great organizing topic,” said Josh Radinksy, parent of a CPS student and a University of Illinois-Chicago faculty member, toward the end of the 90-minute long forum. 

InBloom is an Atlanta-based organization that provides data-cloud technology so states or individual school districts may create a “secure, single-access point” of centralized student data, according to the company’s website. Through InBloom technology, applications can be created to provide student’s academic, attendance, and behavioral history. 

InBloom originally partnered with nine states on data storage projects. But each state, except Illinois and New York, bowed out, citing privacy concerns. A group of parents in New York have sued the state to block the data storehouse, and New York state lawmakers are currently convening hearings on InBloom. 

In Illinois, state officials stress that the online data portal they are rolling out this winter, called the Illinois Shared Learning Environment (IESL), will only track student’s academic progress. IESL is scheduled to start as a pilot in the Bloomington and Normal school districts this January, before coming to other districts, including Chicago, that receive federal Race to the Top money.

 At the forum, Kurt Hilgendorf, a policy researcher with the Chicago Teachers Union, pointed out that while state data will only look at academics, individual school districts have the option of using InBloom’s full array of services. Hilgendorf argued that, “Parents [in each district] should have a role in deciding what data gets shared in the system.”

The forum included a presentation from Leonie Haimson, executive director of the New York City-based Class Size Matters. Haimson focused on the fact that in 2011, the U.S. Department of Education changed its privacy law so that school districts may share student data with third- party vendors without notifying parents.

Woestehoff called this a “big concern” arguing that, “The Chicago Public Schools might sell our kids data to the highest bidder because they are trying to balance their budget.”

CPS spokesperson Becky Carroll, however, said in a statement that “protecting student data is critical and we are working closely with ISBE to ensure that all such data would be used for the explicit purpose of creating personalized learning plans for students in need of academic support — and we won’t move forward with this initiative unless it is guaranteed that the process is secure and student data is safe. Should the district decide to participate in this initiative with the state, it would not stand to gain monetarily by providing limited access to such data.”

Mary Fergus, spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Education, said in a phone interview Thursday that school districts must still adhere to “strict federal privacy laws,” making it doubtful districts can legally get away with such data sell-offs. 

A federal lawsuit filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, calling for U.S. DOE to undo its 2011 privacy law changes, was dismissed in September.