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Maine School Boards Fighting Use of SSNs in Education Research

To minimize the risk of identity theft, school boards in Maine are discouraging parents from providing their children's Social Security numbers (SSNs) to the state's education agency--even though state law says to do otherwise. Brewer School District unanimously passed a resolution recently telling parents not to provide SSNs when asked to do so--even by the state. The board at Brewer also formally requested that the state's legislature rescind the law that forces the collection of the personal data. A similar resolution was adopted by Waterville Public Schools and is under consideration by other boards elsewhere in the state.

Maine's Department of Education is performing a longitudinal study that will follow students for 12 years, both during and after their school years, to uncover the impact of their education on earning power and other outcomes. The study is tied to the state's efforts to track student achievement and teachers' effectiveness and to obtain "Race to the Top" funding.

At a December 2009 legislative committee meeting, the study's administrators said that the use of SSNs "increases the accuracy of the tracking and reporting." They added that if a parent elected not to provide permission to a school district to use a child's Social Security number, the student could still be tracked through other means.

Just a few months earlier, in September 2009, the state had passed a bill that required its education department to develop and maintain the research data system and to conduct studies by permitting the use of student SSNs. It's that law that Maine districts are now encouraging parents to disobey.

"Even the most secure databases are subject to breach, and theft of Social Security numbers can lead to identity theft," said Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union. The organization is advising public school superintendents to supplement their privacy notifications to parents with information about the risks involved in providing SSNs for study purposes. "A proper explanation would inform parents of privacy risks associated with social security numbers and the benefits of keeping our most personal information private," she said.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.