Fairfax County Public Schools quietly signed a five-year contract to pay an out-of-state consulting firm, Panorama Education, $1,845,600 from COVID emergency funds for a “Social Emotional Learning Universal Screener” program that will collect personal and private data on 190,000 students districtwide and implement “interventions.”
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his physician wife Priscilla Chan are investors in Panorama Education, raising concerns among northern Virginia parents about the consulting firm collecting confidential student information and engaging in the controversial practice of “data mining,” on the pretense of “social and emotional learning,” known as “SEL.”
What’s more, in fine print in the contract, Fairfax County Public Schools says that Panorama Education, listed as “the Company,” has special status with the school district, stating: “…the Company and its Authorized Representatives shall be deemed to be school officials of the School Board, and shall maintain FCPS Confidential Student Records in accordance with all federal state and local laws, rules and regulations regarding the confidentiality of such records.”
The news of the “SEL Screener” has angered parents, already struggling with COVID-19 challenges. “It’s outrageous FCPS is collaborating with a for-profit company funded by Mark Zuckerberg – a fact not transparently relayed to parents,” said Tiffany McCaslin, a Fairfax County mother. “Any involvement by a social media giant with surveys examining students’ mental health is reprehensible.”
Parents can opt-out their children from the screener at this link: https://bit.ly/FCPSScreenerOptOut. The “Opt-Out” form states, “Screener data will only be accessible to teachers, administrators, and staff with legitimate educational interests.” There is no mention of Panorama Education.
Several parents have reported to Parents Defending Education, a new national parent advocacy organization, that they are getting confusing instructions about where to submit the opt-out letter. FCPS officials have issued several public statements, justifying the contract as “Addressing Students’ Academic, Social, Emotional, and Mental Health Needs.”
Also raising concern among parents, the school district is using emergency COVID relief funds signed into law on March 20, 2021, after Congress set aside about $13.2 billion of the $30.75 billion allotted to the Education Stabilization Fund through the Coronavirus Aid Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER Fund). The so-called ESSER Fund was designed to “address the impact that COVID-19 has had, and continues to have, on elementary and secondary schools across the Nation.”
Parents are raising issues about how COVID relief money is being wasted on contractors instead of focusing on learning loss, as the school district recently saw with Standards of Learning scores plummeting for students in northern Virginia.
In a statement, “FCPS Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund,” the school district says that FCPS will “use approximately $78.8 million, or 42 percent, of its ARP Act ESSER III funds to ensure our schools are welcoming and culturally responsive to all students and families.”
The new Fairfax County contract says Panorama Education will have access to 190,000 students including the identities of students and how they answer questions about what they “think and feel.” In its Sept. 14, 2020, Request for Proposal, the school district says “schools operate as the de facto mental health provider in communities throughout the U.S.” (page 4, section 5.6)
According to a sample of questions provided by the school district, the questions cover a range of intimate topics that students could ask many different ways during any given day, asking, for example:
“How confident are you that students at your school can have honest conversations with each other about race?”
“How often do you think about what someone of a different race, ethnicity, or culture experiences?”
“During the past week, how often did you feel sad?”
“During the past 30 days, how much did you care about other people’s feelings?”
“How connected do you feel to the adults at your school?”
“Overall, how much do you feel like you belong at your school?”
According to the five-year “acceptance agreement,” contract No. 44000010525, dated June 8, 2021, the pricing schedule includes five annual payments with three optional one-year extensions. The request for proposal for a “Social Emotional Learning Universal Screener” included “social and emotional learning” and “all related services.” The school district cast the request as a competitive bidding process but it isn’t clear if other proposals were submitted. The school district has the documents from this contract which can be found at https://bit.ly/2W51aS4
In Addendum No. 1, dated Oct. 2, 2020, to the request for proposal, Fairfax County Public Schools received a question, asking: “Does FCPS have a specific set of SEL Competency Standards that guide instruction?” The school district responded, “Not at this time. There [sic] work is in progress.”
“Key Skills” required in the contract include aligning the survey work with the standards set by a Chicago-based consulting company, Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, that has built a big business selling “social and emotional learning” services to school districts.
According to CASEL, “SEL is implemented with an explicit goal of promoting educational equity.” To most education activists, “equity” translates into equal outcomes.
The Social Emotional Learning Screener will also collect “psychometrics” for students in grades K-12. Parents are particularly concerned about how children in grade K-3 will answer complex mental wellness questions that they are unlikely to understand.
‘Half and half’ about ‘making business’
The “screener” raises concerns among parents, particularly in light of comments that cofounder Aaron Feuer gave in 2013, as the company launched. To a question about whether investors were focused on “making money” or “improving schools,” Feuer stated that companies are “roughly half and half” about seeing schools as a “strong market to invest in” and “a really great place to make a difference.”
The school district raised controversy this spring when it surprised parents with an “Anti-Racism, Anti-Bias Curriculum Policy Survey” co-written by another out-of-state consulting firm, Leadership Academy, that was paid $49,600 to do the survey, which Parents Defending Education chronicled here: https://bit.ly/2XLkSmA.
Before the results were even collected, the school district had signed a four-year contract in March 2021 for Leadership Academy to host “professional development” that could cost the school district $702,700 if it just commissioned basic services. Parents and community members sent letters to the school district through Parents Defending Education, expressing their concerns.
For local parent McCaslin, collecting “psychometrics” is the wrong priority for the school district. “This money should never have been reallocated in this manner, and I do not want my three daughters’ most sensitive social and emotional positions being collected, dissected, cataloged and shared with a for-profit company funded by a social media giant responsible for the detriment of the mental health for young girls,” she said. “The timing of this initiative is impeccable since, as I write this, Facebook-owned Instagram is currently under fire for keeping secret its internal research into the effect social media has on teenage users.”
Asra Q. Nomani is a resident of Fairfax County, and former reporter for the Wall Street Journal. She is vice president of strategy and investigations at Parents Defending Education. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @AsraNomani on Twitter.
Editor's Note: After publication, Fairfax County Public Schools submitted the following comment. "Panorama has signed a legally binding contract with FCPS that specifies how the data will be collected, stored, and used," said a FCPS spokesperson. "The data will be used only for the purposes of serving FCPS and only for education purposes. In addition, Panorama complies with all applicable federal laws, such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA), as well as state and local regulations concerning student data.”