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Privacy Laws Inadequate to Protect Student Data from Advertisers and Others

NEPC releases 17th annual report
on Schoolhouse Commercialism Trends


William J. Mathis, (802) 383-0058,
Faith Boninger, (480) 390-6736,
Alex Molnar, (480) 797-7261,

URL for this press release:

BOULDER, CO (April 9, 2015) – The computer technology that enables school districts to aggregate, collate, analyze and store massive amounts of student information – and the heavy reliance on private contractors to help manage that information collection, analysis and storage – pose significant concerns about the privacy rights of students, a new report released today shows.

While state and federal lawmakers have sought to expand the privacy rights of students and their families in the collection and dissemination of personal data collected by and for schools, those efforts have been piecemeal, incomplete, and often inadequate, the report suggests.

Those conclusions are among the findings of the 17th Annual Report on Schoolhouse Commercialism Trends, On The Block: Student Data and Privacy in the Digital Age. The report, by Alex Molnar and Faith Boninger, is published by the National Education Policy Center, housed at the University of Colorado Boulder.

In a new educational environment that emphasizes the computerization of student data and work, questions over how long information is held, who has the right to see it, and how students and their families might correct errors and inaccuracies it contains, are far from resolved and have become “critical policy issues,” the authors write.

In particular, Molnar and Boninger note the ease with which schools themselves may become vehicles for subjecting children to increased marketing efforts. Of special concern is “anonymized” meta-data that can be used to market to students and their families, and the increased time that students are encouraged to spend working online. When children enter the Internet environment, even if they enter from a responsible site with a transparent privacy policy, they are quickly exposed to other commercial sites that may be less concerned about their privacy. “The hard truth,” Molnar and Boninger contend, is that “when schools send children into the open online environment, they are in reality often offering up these children to be tracked for the purpose of serving them ads for products that algorithms predict they will want to buy.”

Their report concludes with recommendations that lawmakers look to comprehensive guidelines in the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s Student Privacy Bill of Rights to help shape stronger privacy protections for students and their families. They also recommend the development of stronger policies to address “not only the privacy of student educational records but also the wide variety of student data (including anonymized data that may now be collected and shared)” – with particular attention to the commercial use of such data. Additionally, the authors write, as policymakers engage this issue, they need to place the burden of protection of student data “not only on schools and districts but also on any private vendors with access to student data.”

“This would align the interests of all parties, public and private, in protecting student privacy,” Molnar and Boninger write.

Find On the Block: Student Data and Privacy in the Digital Age – The Seventeenth Annual Report on Schoolhouse Commercialism: 2013-2014, by Alex Molnar and Faith Boninger, on the web at:


The mission of the National Education Policy Center is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence.  For more information on NEPC, please visit

Funding for the Annual Reports on Schoolhouse Commercialism is provided in part by Consumers Union.