Big Brother in Government Schools: Trading in Civil Liberties for Cold, Hard Cash

Texas launched its controversial “Student Locator Project” last month. When fully implemented, it will reach more than 100 Texas schools districts and around 100,000 students. Two San Antonio schools are among the first to participate, John Jay High School and Anson Jones Middle  School in the Northside Independent School District.

Basically students returned to school this fall and were informed that their old ID badges were invalid (even though last year school officials said they’d be good for four years). Students were told that unless they wore their new ID badges equipped with radio frequency tracker chips, they could face fines, “involuntary transfers,” or suspensions.

The stated reason behind the project is to combat truancy and improve attendance rates, a problem at these two schools. In reality, the schools are trading students’ civil liberties for cold, hard cash. By improving attendance rates the district expects to get an additional $2 million in state funding. The cost for keeping the program running is estimated to be more than $526,000 for implementation plus another $136,000 and change each year to operate the program.

How’s this scheme working out so far? Well, government schools being the models of efficiency they are, the district has not assigned a single person to track students’ whereabouts…yet. Worse, the identification radio frequencies send out a continuous signal—even when they’re off campus. All a predator would need to do is go to the district office, pay for a $30 freedom of information request, and get a copy of every student’s name and address. With a radio-frequency identification reader, a predator could follow students anywhere.

But the senseless civil liberty violations don’t stop there. Student Andrea Hernandez has thus far refused to wear the new tracker ID badge out of both privacy and religious concerns. She and her father tried reaching out to the American Civil Liberties Union. They declined to take her case “because organization officials didn’t feel Andrea’s religious concerns would advance their core mission.”

The deputy superintendent tried to negotiate a side deal with Andrea’s father so he and his daughter would go along to get along. If Andrea “would proudly wear her student ID card around her neck so everyone could see,” stop criticizing the program and start supporting it, he’d quietly remove the tracking device from her ID.

Mr. Hernandez said, “I told him that was unacceptable because it would imply an endorsement of the district’s policy, and my daughter and I should not have to give up our constitutional rights to speak out against a program that we feel is wrong.”

While school officials focus on PR, Andrea is concerned about her academics. “In order to get into the Science and Engineering Academy I had to have good grades, great attendance, and be in pre-AP [advanced placement] classes. I had to fill out an application and write an essay about why I would be a good student,” she explained. “Now they want to take the education that I have worked so hard for away from me because I refuse to wear a tracker.”

While San Antonio is getting the spotlight right now, Texas isn’t the only state dabbling with tracking students in government schools. A federally-funded Richmond, California, preschool embeds tracker chips into children’s clothes, and another elementary school outside Sacramento scrapped its plan to track students back in 2005 after controversy erupted.

As Wired summed up it in a recent article, “[I]t appears that the educational move to Big Brother-style monitoring is motivated mainly by money, despite privacy and health concerns.”

Vicki E, Alger is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Senior Fellow and Director of the Women for School Choice Project at the Independent Women’s Forum. She is the author of the Independent book, Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children.
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