AUSTIN, Texas — To 15-year-old Andrea Hernandez, the tracking microchip embedded in her student ID card is a “mark of the beast,” sacrilege to her Christian faith — not to mention how it pinpoints her location, even in the school bathroom.
But to her budget-reeling San Antonio school district, those chips carry a potential $1.7 million in classroom funds.
Starting this fall, the fourth-largest school district in Texas is experimenting with “locator” chips in student ID badges on two of its campuses, allowing administrators to track the whereabouts of 4,200 students with GPS-like precision. Andrea’s refusal to participate isn’t a twist on teenage rebellion, but has launched a debate over privacy and religion that has forged rare like-mindedness between typically opposing groups.
When Andrea and her parents balked at the so-called SmartID, the school agreed to remove the chip but still required her to wear the badge. The family refused on religious grounds, stating in a lawsuit that even wearing the badge was tantamount to “submission of a false god” because the card still indicated her participation.
“How often do you see an issue where the ACLU and Christian fundamentalists come together? It’s unusual,” said Chris Steinbach, chief of staff for a Republican state lawmaker who has filed a bill to outlaw the technology in Texas schools.
The concept isn’t new, but hasn’t exactly caught on nationwide. In 2005, the American Civil Liberties Union raised concerns about a similar initiative at a California school. That same year, a suburban Houston school district began putting the chips in its student IDs, and served as the blueprint for Northside’s pilot program that began this fall.
Ronald Stephens, executive director of the nonprofit National School Safety Center, said he didn’t think the technology to be widespread but predicted “it’ll be the next wave” in schools. The chips use radio-frequency identification (RFID) transmitters and only work on campus.
The Northside school district spent roughly $261,000 to equip students at one high school and one middle school with SmartIDs, a decision made with safety and efficiency in mind, said district spokesman Pascual Gonzalez. Imagine quickly accounting for students in the event of a lockdown, he said, or cafeteria lines moving faster as scanners instantly identify who’s picking up that lunch tray.
Yet the biggest motivation was financial. In Texas, school funding is based on daily attendance. The more students seated in homeroom when the first bell rings, the more state dollars the school receives. If a student is lingering in the hallway or the library when roll is called, the marked absence hurts the school’s bottom line.
But with the locator chips — the district doesn’t like to call them “tracking” — a clerk in the main office can find out if a student is elsewhere on campus, and if so, include them in the attendance count. Every student found amounts to another $30 in funding, based on the school’s calculations. In that way, those moving red dots that represent students on the clerk’s computer screen are like finding change in the couch cushions.
Mr. Gonzalez said the district has estimated another $1.7 million in funding if the program delivers on expectations, somewhat lessening the sting of losing $61.5 million after state lawmakers cut public school funding in Texas by nearly $5 billion last year.
By Elaine Donnelly
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