No child left unrecruited

To get federal money, schools have to give students' names and numbers to military recruiters. But some schools, claiming invasion of privacy, are fighting back.

By Aimee Molloy
Published March 21, 2005 10:01PM (EST)

One day in the next two weeks, a uniformed colonel from the U.S. Army is expected to pay a visit to William Cala, the superintendent of the Fairport Central School District in Fairport, N.Y., east of Rochester. While Cala has not been told exactly what's on the agenda, he knows why the colonel is coming: to try to talk some sense into him about how he's handled the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act. It might seem strange that the Pentagon is sending an emissary to a school district, but it's actually the law.

The colonel's visit is the latest move in a three-year dispute between the Fairport school district and the government over a little-known provision of No Child Left Behind, the controversial landmark education legislation passed in 2001. The provision, under Section 9528 of the law, requires districts that receive federal funding to share students' names, addresses and phone numbers with military recruiters. This is where Cala, an outspoken critic of NCLB, has run into problems with the law -- he doesn't want to hand over student data to military recruiters without explicit permission from parents. "The Fairport Board of Education has a very long-standing policy that we don't share student information with anybody, period," says Cala, who has run the Fairport schools for eight years. "We're being forced to reverse this policy because the military says so, and we don't think that's fair or right."

The government is hoping the colonel will help Cala change his mind. Schools that don't comply with the law are at risk of losing their federal funding, and a visit from a military officer is the government's first step toward rectifying the situation. Cala's is currently the only school district in the country known to be declared in violation of Section 9528 -- but this issue has been causing problems for schools across the nation. In places like Santa Cruz, Calif., and San Francisco, educators have struggled to balance their desire to protect student privacy against the threat of losing federal education funding.

The Pentagon claims the law is intended simply to ensure that students get the chance to learn about joining the military, but critics believe that allowing recruiters access to student information is a privacy violation and a desperate attempt to encourage military recruiting at a time when the Defense Department is failing to meet recruiting goals. Some parents, and civil liberties advocates, have complained that recruiters have gone so far as to show up at students' homes after school, uninvited. "This is not some innocuous advertising circular that you're getting," says Donna Lieberman, the head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which is assisting Fairport in its battle with the government. "These are hard-hitting, hardball marketing tactics that are reasonably intended to intimidate people either to listen or to sign up."

Superintendent Cala is not opposed to sharing student information with the Pentagon per se. In fact, over the past three years, he has delivered them the names of nearly 200 students, and in 2002, the Army sent a note thanking him for his cooperation. But he is opposed to distributing students' information without parental consent, and that's where he and the government are at odds. The law requires that parents who wish to keep their child's information private must opt out of the policy, or, in other words, specifically state in writing that they do not grant consent. If a parent does not respond to school notification of the measure, either because the notification was never received or because it was thrown away with the junk mail, the government requires the school to consider that permission to hand over the student's name and phone number to the Department of Defense. According to Army spokesman Douglas Smith, many schools were providing this information to the military even before NCLB was enacted, and the requirement is intended to get data from schools that were not already sharing it. "Most schools think it's in their students' interests to learn about what the military offers," Smith said.

The Fairport school district has taken a different approach to how information is collected. "In the letter we send home, we say we have to have the form back or we won't process it," Cala explains. "We feel to protect the privacy rights of our students, their information isn't released without their explicit permission. We've read the No Child Left Behind law and our attorneys have read it, and we believe we're compliant." What's more, Cala feels that an opt-in policy, rather than opt-out, ultimately helps the military because the students whose names go to recruiters actually want to be contacted. "When we give them a list, it's a smaller list because few parents want the information released," he says. "But they don't have to sift through the garbage. Why does this disturb the military? We're doing their recruiting for them."

The law does not explicitly prohibit schools from using an opt-in policy, but the government has, nonetheless, classified Fairport as being noncompliant and, therefore, at risk of losing federal funding. "We have a 10 percent special education population," Cala says, "and it's our most costly program. A good portion of that is federal money, and we'd be in real trouble if we lost that." Currently, Fairport has not had any of its funding revoked and according to a Defense Department spokesman, the Pentagon feels certain that Fairport's procedures will come into line with the law by the next school year. Which brings us back to the colonel on his way to visit Cala: If he cannot convince Cala to change his district's procedures, the law says that the New York governor will be contacted. Should that fail to produce results, Congress will be alerted.

Cala is not backing down and, in fact, he's optimistic that he will be able to convince the government that Fairport is not breaking the law -- an outcome that's not likely to transpire. Other school districts have, in the past, abandoned opt-in policies when faced with the threat of losing federal funds. In 2003, students at a Santa Cruz high school launched a campaign to adopt an opt-in policy, which was officially passed by the city's Board of Education that year. The San Francisco Unified School District followed suit.

But in July of 2003, the departments of education and defense sent a joint letter to the California state superintendent, explaining that the government was prepared to "withhold payments [of federal money], issue cease and desist orders, and recover funds" should the noncompliant school districts refuse to voluntarily comply with the law. "Once we got that letter," says Roqua Montez, a spokesman for the San Francisco school district, "we immediately began to reevaluate. We get around $38 million in federal funding and we couldn't risk that." Though they reverted to an opt-out policy, Santa Cruz and San Francisco remain committed to finding a way to protect student privacy under the terms of the law. Santa Cruz has enacted what it calls "an air-tight opt-out plus" policy, whereby the opt-out form is printed directly on the emergency medical card every student must complete before starting the school year.

Last month, U.S. Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., proposed the Student Privacy Protection Act, which would make opting in a legal option. "I want to ensure that students are willing recipients of the military's recruitment efforts," Honda says. "Let students and their families choose who they want soliciting them in the mail and on the phone during dinner." The bill is currently under consideration in a House committee.

The government's seeming unwillingness to compromise on this issue may be driven, at least in part, by the difficulty military recruiters are having in meeting recruiting goals. But that doesn't explain one of the more confounding aspects of this policy -- why a Republican administration is championing a measure that clearly goes against typically conservative values. "Many Republicans supported opt-in," says Bob Fitch of the Resource Center for Nonviolence in Santa Cruz, who helped organize the city's original opt-in policy. "They were offended by marketing to our children in the schools, and clearly saw this as an issue of privacy."

But Army spokesman Doug Smith doesn't understand why educators and parents may be upset with the privacy invasion aspect of the No Child Left Behind Act. "I've been in Army recruiting for 25 years," he explains, "and I'm quite taken aback that people are having a negative response to this. We're not coercing people, we're just offering information about what the military provides. What's the problem with a student being exposed to information?"

As for Cala, he is prepared to settle this issue through the courts if he has to. "We'll do what we have to do, but we won't be intimidated," he says. "Every aspect of No Child Left Behind is based on the threat concept of if you don't follow what we say, we're going to take your money away. Someone has got to stand up to that."

Aimee Molloy

Aimee Molloy is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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