Senators promise bill for new limits on school research

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Congressional proposals to give parents more say when market researchers seek to collect data from public school students have spread from the House to senate.

Joining House proponents, Sens. Christopher Dodd (D., Conn.) and Richard Shelby (R., Ala.) said they will propose an amendment to an education bill that could be debated by the full Senate as early as this week.

Under their proposal, any plan to allow market researchers to collect information in the schools would first have to be presented for public discussion at a public school board meeting or, alternatively, the schools would have to get consent from the parents of the students who would be involved.

The requirement would apply even if the information collected wasn't personally identifiable.


In the House, even tougher disclosure rules have been approved by the House education committee as part of a larger education bill now awaiting floor debate. The House proposal, pushed by Rep. George Miller (D., Calif.), would require parental consent for any use of data collected by marketers. The Senate proposal would let school boards skip parental consent if the marketer's plan to obtain information had been publicly presented at a school board meeting.

Currently, such deals can be worked out with individual schools in a district without board approval.

"There is a lot of value in relationships of private enterprise with public education," Sen. Dodd said. "It is not evil, not wrong. But we do think that when you go into the classroom and try to develop opinion research for marketing for everything from junk foods to sneakers that parents ought to know whether their 5- or 6- or 7-year-old is being used. We get [parental] consent for whether [kids] go on field trips, or use certain medicines in school. That is not that hard. That is not a difficult thing to get."


Sen. Shelby said parents are not informed of the activities now and said he thinks parents should know. "Children are being used as guinea pigs and objects of commercialization. . . . [This] gives parents a clear picture of what is going on in their children's classroom and an opportunity to decide for themselves whether they want their kids to participate."

Both senators acknowledged their proposal is drawing criticism from marketers and the National School Boards Association, but support from the National PTA.

In the House, the Direct Marketing Association and other ad industry groups have written education committee members urging the curb be removed when the bill reaches the House floor.

Ad groups say local school boards, not Congress, should be able to decide what is best for their schools. They contend the House curb is so broad it could make it difficult and expensive to provide schools magazines or computers, to try out new cereals and software, or even offer fund-raising programs, though all benefit students and are often approved by school boards.

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