News Analysis

The relationship between the Bush administration and American education bears all the earmarks of an abusive, co-dependent relationship worthy of a Dr. Phil prime-time special. From the No Child Left Behind Act, which mandates reform without funding support, to

“Project Strike Back shows how easily personal student information can be used for purposes other than those originally and specifically intended.”

— David L. Warren, NAICU

sex-education dollars taken from states and given to private evangelical religous groups — conflicting desires have the government behaving like a possessive but cheating lover, whispering undying devotion while checking its cell’s caller ID for the next hook-up.

One recently revealed pecadillo is Project Strike Back, initiated on September 21, 2001, in reaction to the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, in which the FBI examined hundreds of student records over the course of four years. The exposed data-mining project, coupled with the current proposal to create a mandatory national databank compiling student information, and the possibility of a grant to the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary’s University — which may degrade the integrity of the Freedom of Information Act — has some education, privacy, and First Amendment advocates ready to kick the Bush administration to the curb.

The Department of Education participated in the now-defunct Project Strike Back because of a Privacy Act exemption that allows law-enforcement access to student data, but ceased this year after FBI requests for records tapered off. The exact number of examined records has not been released, and, as usual, the public has no idea whether the program actually captured any terrorists, but the current political climate ensures the Bush administration would take advantage of any success in national security by trumpeting it in the media.

The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities — a relatively staid, mainstream organization — denounced Project Strike Back. “Regardless of one’s stance of the government’s use of databases in the war on terrorism, Project Strike Back shows how easily personal student information can be used for purposes other than those originally and specifically intended,” David L. Warren, president of the NAICU, told the Current. He called into question assurances from the proposal’s supporters that the information gathered would be secure and research-oriented only. “Numerous recent breaches of personal data maintained by federal agencies, as well as the FBI review of data submitted by students applying for federal student aid, call these claims into question,” Warren said.

Meanwhile, funding has been appropriated for the Center for Terrorism Law’s proposed DoD study, entitled Homeland Defense and Civil Support Threat Information Collection. On its website, St. Mary’s University describes the study as “ … an independent information-gathering initiative to compile and study all of the various state legislation that has been enacted (particularly since 9/11) related to how various state governments have chosen to balance the issue of increased security concerns and the protection of civil liberties.”

The study’s potential findings and recommendations could present real risks to the free flow of information, considering that the Center’s personnel have extensive military backgrounds. While it’s a generalization that all present and ex-military tend to lean conservative, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest civil liberties have less weight than security concerns among this group. Available data suggests the military as a whole votes Republican by a margin of 2 to 1, with officers identifying themselves as conservatives by 8 to 1.

Patrick J. Filyk, president of the local ACLU chapter, echoes Warren’s concerns. “We fear the Center’s so-called ‘research’ will amount to an academic seal of approval of new policies bought and paid for by the federal government,” said Filyk. “If there is a compelling need to access this information, why not get a warrant? The typical response from Federal authorities when questioned about their activities is to say ‘trust us.’”

Failures of government and personal relationships follow similar paths: a rising chorus of suspicions and accusations, stalking and spying, and plenty of anger and recriminations. What conservatives and many Republicans may find happening in the next two election cycles, in part because of the dysfunctional treatment by the Bush administration of the education system, will be a democratic version of throwing that no-good, triflin’ man’s clothes out on the front lawn.
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