Government "Gifts" Always Have Strings

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Thanks to its claims that a federal educational database is collecting information about parents' political affiliations, a column by Arnold Ahlert linked at Jewish World Review caught my attention this morning. In attempting to verify this claim, I discovered that there is a great deal of justifiable concern among Tea Partiers regarding such an effort. Here is part of the list of things Ahlert claims the state will be collecting in its attempts to compile data on students:

  1. Political affiliations or beliefs of the student or parent;
  2. Mental and psychological problems of the student or the student's family;
  3. Sex behavior or attitudes;
  4. Illegal, anti-social, self-incriminating, and demeaning behavior;
  5. Critical appraisals of other individuals with whom respondents have close family relationships;
  6. Legally recognized privileged or analogous relationships, such as those of lawyers, physicians, and ministers;
Granted, I am rushing, as I usually do, to put something together to post this morning, but here is all I have been able to verify about what is being collected:
  1. An unique identifier for every student that does not permit a student to be individually identified (except as permitted by federal and state law);
  2. The school enrollment history, demographic characteristics, and program participation record of every student;
  3. Information on when a student enrolls, transfers, drops out, or graduates from a school;
  4. Students scores on tests required by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act;
  5. Information on students who are not tested, by grade and subject;
  6. Students scores on tests measuring whether they're ready for college;
  7. A way to identify teachers and to match teachers to their students;
  8. Information from students' transcripts, specifically courses taken and grades earned;
  9. Data on students' success in college, including whether they enrolled in remedial courses;
  10. Data on whether K-12 students are prepared to succeed in college;
  11. A system of auditing data for quality, validity, and reliability; and
  12. The ability to share data from preschool through postsecondary education data systems.
This list sounds less disturbing, and it would be under capitalism. A private educational institution would have to tell parents up front what they wanted to do and why. It would be bound by law to honor its word, and parents could always send their children to another school that did not collect such data. But this is a government program that parents who lack alternatives cannot escape. "[D]emographic characteristics", "does not permit a student to be individually identified (except as permitted by federal and state law)", and "ability to share data" are  Orwellian enough in today's context of ever more meddlesome and invasive government. Does it really matter whether I can substantiate Ahlert's specific claims? Yes and no.

I recall from one article I scanned that a parent felt "powerless" in the face of such a proposal. What I do not recall seeing one whiff of was opposition to the whole idea of the government operating schools and excercising so much control over education. Rather, Tea Party opposition seems focused on these particular, easily-dismissed or dicounted allegations. Is this, perhaps, an early warning sign of the "political equivalent of an epileptic seizure" that Tom Bowden of the Ayn Rand Institute predicted a couple of years ago?
Meanwhile, however, the tea party’s “left brain” harbors the same moral impetus that has justified bigger and bigger government since the Progressive Era. The basic idea is that some people’s needs constitute a moral claim on the lives and wealth of others. The list of needs is endless: economic stability, job security, housing, health care, retirement funds. To satisfy those needs, government concocts regulatory and wealth transfer schemes that coercively subject the individual to society. Over the years, each new program – from the Federal Reserve to Social Security, Medicare, and beyond – acquires an aura of moral dignity that renders it politically untouchable by later generations. The needs of others permanently displace the freedom of the individual.
Add "education" to Bowden's list of needs. Opposing government education outright would remove from the government any excuse to compile a massive database of the personal information of schoolchildren, because educating them would be recognized, properly, as none of its business. Supporting it in any form opens the door for the government to collect whatever data it claims, as educator, to need.

If Tea Partiers feel "powerless" in the face of such a government scheme, they should insist on ending the scheme, not "reforming" it. The idea that we can have government goodies without strings, or only with the strings we want, is pure fantasy. "Opposing" the strings to a government entitlement program will see the strings moved or replaced further down the road. Opposing the entitlement program is not (like any other effort) guaranteed of victory, but it is much a more promising way of getting untangled and staying that way. 

-- CAV


Anonymous said...

Hi Gus,

Here's a story where a teacher reasonably pointed out that the survey in question guaranteed no privacy, whatever assurances the administration proffered, by virtue of the fact that the students' names were the first item entered. He recommended that they exercise their 5th Amendment rights and was severely chastised by the school administration.

I agree that having any gov't entity asking these kinds of questions - even, or, especially the census bureau - is an invitation to gov't overreach. In fact, I go so far as to say that gov't owned cameras in public should be banned with the exception of cameras monitoring the actions of the agents of the state; these should be mandatory and access to their content should be available to every citizen.

In the event that a crime occurs, there would be plenty of footage from private security cams that could be secured by appropriate, gov't limiting measures like warrants, subpoenas and requirements to demonstrate probable cause. All of these restraints are missing from gov't owned surveillance apparatus despite any regulations attempting to limit such invastions of privacy on a need to know basis, eg., nude scanner data from TSA. Possession being 9/10ths of the law, the fact that these means are in gov't hands means that, regulations to the contrary nothwithstanding, they will be abused. And this doesn't even reference the general immunity that bad actors in gov't already enjoy.

So, yes, I think that parents of school age children should be concerned about such "questionnaires." The idea that confidentiality would be preserved is absurd; how hard would it be to take a couple of such domains and, with data-mining techniques, isolate the child or parents in question? Which would open the door for the totalitarian minions of "Child Protective Services" to target particular families for state-sanctioned kidnappings. They are already doing that. Why facilitate their targeting capacity?

c. andrew

Gus Van Horn said...

Certainly, I don't advocate facilitating this, but do stress that it's just part of the problem. Perhaps, though, growing distrust of any and all government surveillance is an entry to the bigger problem.

You remind me of an example I clearly recall of medical records that did not even include names or SSNs being able to sometimes pinpoint individuals. In this case, the only male resident of a zip code had a serious medical condition. That person was a state governor, if I recall correctly.