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New York has banned the emerging technology in its schools, arguing that the concerns surrounding it “are not outweighed by the claimed benefits.” Plus, more news to use from around the country in this week's State and Local Roundup.
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It’s Saturday, Sept. 30, and we’d like to welcome you to the weekly State and Local Roundup. There’s plenty to keep tabs on, not least of which is an impending government shutdown unless Congress reaches an agreement on a budget or stopgap measure today. You can find our coverage on how it impacts states and localities here.
But first we start in New York, where Education Commissioner Betty Rosa on Wednesday banned schools from using facial recognition technology.
It’s the culmination of a multiyear effort by privacy advocates to block the spread of the algorithm-based tools before they become an everyday fact of life in schools, like closed-circuit TV monitoring and police officers. Advocates worry that using facial recognition in schools could disproportionately harm students of color, subject students to monitoring without consent, and lead to school officials relying on the technology for tasks it is not well-suited for.
Rosa’s decision came after lawmakers ordered a state agency to study the potential ramifications of facial recognition technology in schools. The study identified serious concerns, including potentially higher rates of “false positives for people of color, nonbinary and transgender people, women, the elderly and children,” Rosa said in her order.
Those concerns “are not outweighed by the claimed benefits” of the technology, she added, saying there was little information available on situations when facial recognition prevented violent incidents.
But Rosa decided that schools could use other kinds of biometric information, such as fingerprints or retina scans. Schools that use the alternative methods, though, must consider their impact on civil rights, effectiveness and parental input, she said.
Lawmakers first put a moratorium on schools’ use of facial recognition in 2020 and specified that it remain in place until the Office of Information Technology Services released its study, which it did last month.
Some school districts had hoped to use facial recognition data to prevent school shootings. But the agency’s report noted that the technology would be unlikely to do so. That’s because it would only flag people who are not supposed to be in the school and 70% of school shooters from 1980 to 2019 were current students. The technology could also “lull administrators and staff into a false sense of security when what is really needed is face-to-face interaction with students who may be in crisis,” the technology office wrote.
Facial recognition, the New York agency concluded, “may only offer the appearance of safer schools.”
New York has been one of the states where organizers have been most successful in challenging the rollout of facial recognition technology, said Molly Kleinman, the managing director of the Science, Technology and Public Policy program at the University of Michigan.
In 2020, Kleinman was one of the authors of a study calling for the widespread ban of facial recognition technologies in schools before it became commonplace. The researchers warned the technology would exacerbate racism, normalize surveillance, change expectations of students, allow students’ data to be sold without their consent and entrench inaccurate practices.
To get an idea of what to expect with the rollout of the nascent technology, Kleinman and the other researchers looked at how previous security enhancements changed people’s behavior.
The introduction of school resource officers, stop-and-frisk policies and airport security all were designed to improve safety. Although they are supposed to be objective and neutral systems, the authors wrote, “in practice they reflect the structural and systemic biases of the societies around them. All of these practices have had racist outcomes due to the users of the systems disproportionately targeting people of color.”
“One thing that’s different from a lot of these earlier kinds of surveillance technologies is the way that the data travels so far beyond the school where it’s coming from,” Kleinman said in an interview. With closed circuit TV, the videos are usually stored on a server on campus or close to it. But facial recognition data is shared more widely and often kept indefinitely by technology companies providing the service.
“The student data in these databases is impossible to get back out again. So while they’re still children, their biometric information is held by companies they have no contact with, they have no agreement with,” she said. “And that can follow them around for the rest of their lives. That’s pretty scary stuff.”
What’s more, the systems that are designed to keep people safe often make them feel less safe, Kleinman added. Students in schools with metal detectors, for example, feel less safe than students where there are none. When schools add police officers, parents who are not in the country legally try to avoid the school, Kleinman said. “They don’t come to meet with the teachers. They don’t come to school events. And we know that parental involvement is one of the indicators of student success.”
Research has shown that facial recognition is most accurate for white males, and less so for women or people with darker skin. That adds to the potential hazards of relying on it for school functions, Kleinman said.
For example, since the pandemic started, facial recognition technology has been used more frequently with standardized testing. A research assistant Kleinman worked with took a test to apply for graduate school. But she couldn’t retrieve her results because a facial recognition tool designed to prevent cheating concluded her photo did not match the one on her ID. “This was a young woman of color, and it took a tremendous amount of effort” for her to rectify the situation, Kleinman said.
Without new regulations, schools might start using facial recognition for routine tasks, including taking attendance, checking out library books or paying for lunch. Many smartphones already use facial recognition to unlock the screen, and it’s feasible that schools could also use that technology to have students log in to tablets or computers at school, Kleinman said.
She urged regulators and lawmakers in other states to put a check on the technology before it becomes more widespread.
“Even though we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the use of facial recognition, there are still a lot of areas where it hasn’t gotten to yet. We can be doing things to regulate it,” she said. “We found that any potential benefits of facial recognition are dramatically outweighed by the harms. And it’s never too late to regulate it.”
Keep reading as there’s more news to use below, and make sure to come back here for the week’s highlights. If you don’t already and would prefer to get it in your inbox, you can subscribe to this newsletter here. We’ll see you next week.
News to Use
Trends, Common Challenges, Cool Ideas, FYIs and Notable Events
- REDISTRICTING: U.S. Supreme Court won’t allow Alabama to use disputed map. The Supreme Court on Tuesday refused Alabama’s request to hold 2024 elections under a new congressional map judged to be an unlawful attempt to diminish the power of the state’s Black voters. It was the second time in four months that the high court has sided with a three-judge panel that found that Alabama’s legislature probably violated the Voting Rights Act. Meanwhile, now that the budget is completed, North Carolina legislators will turn their focus to redrawing its map for the sixth time since 2011. And the Ohio Redistricting Commission passed new statehouse maps Tuesday, giving Republicans a substantial advantage in both the Senate and House.
- FENTANYL: Philadelphia bans supervised injection sites in most of the city. The city council voted Thursday to reverse Mayor Jim Kenney’s veto of a bill that prohibits supervised drug consumption sites in most of the city, making the legislation law and delivering a blow to the yearslong effort to open a facility. A day after Kenney rejected the legislation, which he referred to as “anti-science and misleading,” Council voted to override his veto, 14-1. The law takes effect immediately and changes the city’s zoning code to designate supervised drug consumption sites as a prohibited use in nine of the city’s 10 geographic council districts. Meanwhile, earlier this week, New York City issued a new series of guidelines for the operation of supervised injection sites. The guidance is the first of its kind since the city approved the opening of the nation’s first two supervised injection sites in late 2021.
- TAXES: Massachusetts Legislature approves $1B in tax relief. The state Senate gave overwhelming approval to a raft of tax relief measures, many aimed at the state’s most economically vulnerable, almost two full years after then-Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, attempted the same sort of reform only to be stymied by legislative inaction. Approved by a vote of 39 to 1, the $1 billion tax relief package aims to balance affordability for lower-income families and competitiveness for businesses and individuals considering where to live and work. The bill now goes to Democratic Gov. Maura Healey for her signature. Meanwhile, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, promised another round of tax cuts Wednesday as she reported a $1.83 billion budget surplus from the past fiscal year. Reynolds has said she plans to eliminate Iowa's income tax by the end of her term in 2027.
- HEALTH: If not the feds, who policies hospital mergers? The antitrust case garnering all the attention this week is the lawsuit against Amazon brought by the Federal Trade Commission and 17 states. But who polices hospital mergers? That is the question asked by KFF Health News, which reported that for some 50 years, federal regulators have not stepped in to prevent hospitals from merging with systems in other markets. Without federal intervention, states that have seen megamergers, such as California and Michigan, are often left to wrestle with the complex question of how to respond, given the likelihood of higher prices for their residents. The FTC and the Justice Department are reviewing public comments on draft merger guidelines designed to crack down on mergers in multiple sectors, including health care.
- GUNS: New California gun laws add new taxes and limit places carried. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed more than 20 gun control measures Tuesday, including a bill that tightens the state’s concealed-carry rules and another that imposes a new tax on firearm and ammunition sales. California has some of the strongest firearm restrictions in the country. Nonetheless, guns have contributed to an uptick in its violent crime rates over the last several years, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.
- WELFARE: San Francisco’s mayor wants drug testing for welfare recipients. Recipients of public assistance would have to submit to tests for substance use under a proposal announced Tuesday by Mayor London Breed as she faces mounting political pressure and pressure to address the city’s fentanyl epidemic. Politico reported that Breed, who is running for reelection in 2024, outlined her plan the same day that an heir to the Levi Strauss & Co. fortune launched his own mayoral bid, arguing that Breed had let the drug and homelessness crises fester under her watch. Breed’s proposal—which progressive critics compared to Republican-style welfare mandates—would require all recipients of locally funded cash assistance to participate in a substance abuse treatment program if screening showed drug use.
- HEALTH: North Carolina to launch Medicaid expansion on Dec. 1. Gov. Roy Cooper made the announcement on Monday after achieving what he’s sought for nearly seven years on the job and what’s possibly his biggest policy win. Government health insurance should be available to another 600,000 low-income adults, with roughly half of them receiving coverage on Day 1. But securing expansion through the Republican-controlled state legislature came with hefty political expenses for the Democratic governor that will be difficult to reverse.
- TRANSPORTATION: Driverless truck safety bill killed in California. The legislature passed a bill this month to require human safety drivers in heavy-duty robot trucks for at least the next five years. But last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom killed it. “Considering ... the existing regulatory framework that presently and sufficiently governs this particular technology, this bill is not needed at this time,” he said in a veto message. The bill was sponsored by the Teamsters union and backed by highway safety advocates. Opponents included driverless technology companies, Silicon Valley lobbyists, and various chambers of commerce and business leadership groups. Supporters focused on safety and jobs, opponents on business growth and technological progress.
- MANAGEMENT: A new Kentucky law is dissolving “ghost cities.” For years, cities in Kentucky could be dissolved by a vote of residents or action from a circuit court. But how do you do that if nobody knows a city exists? Last year, the Kentucky General Assembly passed a law to dissolve these “ghost” cities that no longer have officials or functioning governments. Every city in Kentucky was required to send the name of current city officials and their contact information to the state. If a city didn’t provide that basic information, then the state can move to dissolve it. After multiple requests for information with no response, five Kentucky cities are now slated for dissolution. As part of the process, a public hearing is held to announce facts and take public comments. So far, nobody has shown up to a meeting.
- VOTING: Conservative media network behind deluge of election records requests. Local election offices across the country are struggling to manage a sharp rise in the number of public records requests, and extensive requests coming from a media outlet in at least five states have stymied election officials, according to Votebeat. The requests are broad and unclear, and the purpose often not fully explained, leaving officials wondering in some cases whether they can legally release the records. Local Labs is known for a massive network of websites that mainly blasts out aggregated conservative-leaning hyper-local news. Its CEO Brian Timpone told Votebeat that the company is using records requests in an attempt to expose election fraud that he is sure exists, and he confirmed, is sometimes getting paid by GOP-backed clients to do so.
Picture of the Week
Flamingo update!The ‘Idalia flamingos’ are on the move, making waves yesterday when they appeared in Wisconsin for the first time in recorded history!#FlamingoUpdate #IdaliaFlamingos #ABCBirds #BirdNews #WisconsinFlamingo #GreatLakesFlamingo #AmericanFlamingo pic.twitter.com/gQL782vEcl— American Bird Conservancy (@ABCbirds) September 26, 2023
Five American flamingos showed up in Wisconsin last weekend to wade along a Lake Michigan beach. The unusual visitors, who have ventured far from their usual tropical setting, attracted a big crowd of bird enthusiasts. The sighting was unexpected but not a total shock because of recent reports of flamingos in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania, Ryan Brady, conservation biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, told the Associated Press. Wildlife biologists hypothesized that the flamingos were pushed north in late August by the strong winds of Hurricane Idalia. The typical range of the American flamingo is Florida and other Gulf Coast states as well as the Caribbean and northern South America.
Government in Numbers
The percentage of county voting officials in Nevada that are new since 2020. In Arizona, it is 55%. In some battleground states, more than half of the local election administrators will be new since the last presidential race, according to a new report from the democracy-focused advocacy group Issue One. The report focused on 11 western states and found that the problem of voting official turnover is particularly acute in the region's swing states, where conspiracy theories have flourished. In total, more than 160 chief local election officials—nearly 40% of the region's officials—have left their positions in the 11 states that Issue One tracked. Experts say they expect to see a similar trend in other states as well, according to NPR.