Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
What happens with all the information that students and schools now pour into laptops, iPads and other devices during a typical school day?
Between searches for information, personal e-mails and direct messages, taking tests and completing assignments, they're creating electronic footprints of data that could be mined and used for the wrong purposes.
To prevent that, Minnesota lawmakers are considering measures that would restrict how tech companies use student data and how schools monitor district-issued devices. The Senate Education Committee recently unanimously approved SF 2307, a bill that would limit how long companies are allowed to keep student data on file and prevent them from advertising to families based on the information.
The Senate bill, authored by Sen. Andrew Mathews, R-Princeton, and its House companion, HF 341, have bipartisan support and deserve passage.
Federal rules under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act already limit what information schools can release about individual students without their consent, including enrollment status, test scores and grades. However, that law doesn't address what data schools can collect and use internally. It also doesn't speak to how tech firms may use the data they collect.
The measures would change the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act to address those issues. It would provide new limitations on the "technology providers" — the companies that contract with schools to receive educational data or provide devices such as laptops or tablets for student use.
During a Senate hearing, representatives of the teachers union Education Minnesota and officials with the St. Paul and Osseo school districts spoke in favor of the bill. And in a statement, Julia Decker, of the Minnesota American Civil Liberties Union, said, "Increasingly powerful technology makes it easier and easier to conduct warrantless surveillance by secretly tracking a student's location, seeing into a student's bedroom via a webcam, or even flagging a student's body language as 'suspicious.'"
Decker praised the bill as "an important and critical move toward protecting students' privacy."
According to data privacy experts, if passed, Minnesota would join the 41 other states that have a least one law regulating how companies and districts can use student data.
The author of the House bill, Rep. Sandra Feist, DFL-New Brighton, told a House panel earlier this year that the company that produced the math software her daughter used "relentlessly" pushed parents to pay for a subscription.
Feist has also expressed concerns about how data can be inappropriately used to target students — especially more students of color or who are disadvantaged. In a March Star Tribune commentary, she wrote that a Southern Poverty Law Center investigation found that policies monitoring online student behavior resulted in unnecessary expulsion of minority students.
As is often said about regulating computer use, and as Feist wrote, "Technology advances faster than our ability to regulate it." That's why the state's student data privacy legislation merits support. If approved by the Legislature, the law would better reflect student life in 2022 and better protect Minnesota children and their families.