As I read the lively discussion related to the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) in a Texas magnet school I feel a need to stress one point that is possibly being overlooked. A vast majority of the reactions to the RFID synopsis center on the correctness of the practice from either a legal or ethical perspective. I feel there are inherit inequities embedded in the practice.
The US Supreme Court established the notion that not all students are equal when it handed down the Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton ruling in 1995. Part of the justification for allowing random urinalysis for interscholastic athletes recognized that these students had less expectation to privacy as a result of their participation in athletics. In the end, students who desired to use illicit drugs were not being denied access to an education, they were merely excluded from participation in interscholastic athletics.
My fear is that the concept of treating certain students different than other students, as a result of the choices they make, is being applied too broadly. I co-authored a paper that was presented at the Education Law Association’s 2009 conference and relates to the point I am trying to establish. The paper analyzed the actions of a Colorado charter school and its chartering school district toward a student who qualified for free lunch. The charter school lacked a sufficient kitchen to run a lunch program internally, so charter officials were required to contract with outside vendors to provide lunch services. One year the outside vendor informed the charter school that it would offer its lunches at both a regular price and a reduced price, for those who qualified, but not at the free rate. The one student attending this charter school who qualified for free lunch (that is another issue) was forced to chose to attend the charter school and receive a reduced lunch or attend the neighborhood traditional public school and receive a free lunch. In effect, the student was being denied access to a desired pedagogy due to his parents’ socioeconomic status. I think that sounds like discrimination…
The magnet school in Texas appears to be heading down a similar path related to the use of RFID. Students have an option – chose to use the RFID and attend the magnet school or refuse the RFID and obtain an education elsewhere. I see this either-or approach as dangerous and I fear it will result in denying students access to the magnet curriculum. I am not certain that students attending magnet schools are in the same boat as interscholastic athletes when it comes to a decreased expectation to privacy.
My final observation related to the use of RFID attempts to take the practice to the logical extreme. Let’s suppose the student refuse to comply with the RFID expectations and returns to the neighborhood school. What happens when the neighborhood school decides it, too, is losing money due to students missing classes during the school day and moves to implement the RFID practice? Will the student be forced to comply with the policy in order to remain in public education? Is that a desirable learning environment?
No public school, be it a charter or a magnet school, should ever be allowed to justify discrimination by arguing that if a student does not like the practice then he or she can go elsewhere to learn. Public schools are charged with serving all students and if some public schools are allowed to exclude certain students (by imposing RFID or counseling some students out) then the entire system is in jeopardy.