School choice group seeks personal data on students
By Erin Richards of the Journal Sentinel Feb. 13, 2015
Voucher schools are private schools that receive taxpayer money in the form of tuition payments for qualifying students. All voucher schools are private schools, and most teach religion. As of the 2014-’15 school year, 26,930 students in Milwaukee were using vouchers to attend one of 113 private schools.
The Milwaukee voucher program, officially known as the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, was started in 1990 and is the longest-running urban school voucher program in the country. Students have to come from low-income or moderate-income families to qualify for a voucher. Once enrolled, they bring the participating school a voucher payment of between $7,000 and $8,000 annually.
The state Legislature created a Racine voucher program in 2011 and a statewide voucher program in 2013.
School choice advocates have requested the names, addresses, phone numbers and grade levels of every student enrolled in 30 different public school districts, gearing up for a marketing campaign should lawmakers lift the enrollment cap on Wisconsin’s statewide voucher program.
But what School Choice Wisconsin sees as a legal way to augment its mailing list, public school supporters see as a legal affront on personal privacy.
The issue is prompting some district leaders to revisit options for limiting the release of student data, including reminding parents of their ability to opt out.
“While the district must comply with the request required by law, I find it difficult to believe that this was the intended purpose of the (open records) law,” Green Bay Area School District Superintendent Michelle Langenfeld wrote in a letter to parents this week, informing them of the data request.
School Choice Wisconsin, which lobbies for public money to support the education of children in private schools, made requests under the state’s open records laws recently to obtain student directory information from Green Bay, Oshkosh, Sheboygan, Manitowoc, Wausau and at least two dozen other districts.
Key to the issue is a provision in Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed state budget that would allow an unlimited number of low-income children to receive publicly funded tuition vouchers to attend private, mostly religious schools around the state.
The current statewide voucher-school program, ushered in by Walker two years ago, has an enrollment limit of 1,000 students in 31 private schools.
Whether the proposal will pass the Legislature is unclear. So are the details of exactly how the expansion would be funded, and how many new private schools would want to accept students on vouchers.
But that hasn’t stopped School Choice Wisconsin from gearing up to inform public-school parents about their options in the private sector.
“We looked at areas where we have (private) schools that are likely to be involved in the program,” School Choice Wisconsin President Jim Bender said Friday. “We’re trying to augment our mailing list.”
Bender said he thinks it’s unlikely that districts would be bristling at the request if it had come from any entity or individual other than his. School district leaders say that’s not true; they’re concerned about their families’ personal information going out to anyone.
Historically it’s been a nonissue because nobody ever asks for it.
State open records law mandates districts release student directory information upon request, unless parents have opted out of the directory or unless districts have passed policies to further restrict release of the data.
Directory information includes information such as students’ names, addresses, telephone numbers, date and place of birth, major field of study, height, weight, athletic team participation, awards achieved and schools attended.
The information is key to rounding out important school items such as yearbooks, playbills, sports rosters, announcements to the media about student accomplishments and contact lists that help families communicate with each other.
Oshkosh School District Superintendent Stan Mack said his district will comply with releasing all the directory data that state law and its own district policy allow.
But he’s also sending a letter to parents Monday reminding them of their right under state law to opt out of the directory. Even after School Choice Wisconsin has made the request.
He said the district will give copies of the records to School Choice Wisconsin after offering parents a week to opt out if they wish.
State law also appears to allow some wiggle room for districts to restrict releasing some of the data, in the event that it’s for “purposes of student safety.”
Oshkosh, for example, has a policy restricting the release of students’ telephone numbers and addresses at the middle and high school level. Military recruiters and colleges are exempt from that policy.
Mack said releasing student addresses and phone numbers at the elementary level was intended to make it easier for families to get in touch with each other, as they often live within walking distance. He added the district would likely be revisiting that policy.
“We’ve done so many things with securing our buildings and having all our doors locked during the day, and yet we release home phone numbers and home addresses of children,” he said.
“That information getting into the wrong hands could create significant danger,” he said. “I’m sure School Choice Wisconsin is not part of that. But that information floating about seems to not to be the best idea.”
Langenfeld, from Green Bay, said Friday that the district takes its responsibility of privacy and confidentiality very seriously and will also revisit its policies regarding avenues for families to opt out of data releases.
The district has also told School Choice Wisconsin to expect a fee of $380 to retrieve and assemble paper copies of the records for its 22,500 students.
Scot Ross, executive director of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now, said there’s no way to predict what School Choice Wisconsin will do with the data.
“We’re not saying what they did was illegal, we’re saying it’s sleazy, and given the voucher industry’s record on accountability, there are legitimate concerns about how this data is used, resold and transmitted,” Ross said Friday.
Bender countered that the organization has stated that it doesn’t intend to sell or use the data for commercial purposes.
He said many districts have already provided the data without fee or fuss.
“Anyone who comes and asks for the data can get it,” Bender said. “It’s not like we’re the only people who have access to it.”