Will Congress Protect Student Privacy? 3 Reasons Parents Should Be Worried

July 3, 2017

by Karen R. Effrem, MD


The U. S. House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education held a hearing last week on “Exploring Opportunities to Strengthen Education Research While Protecting Student Privacy.” This is the latest effort to try to renew the invasive Strengthening Education Through Research Act (SETRA) we warned about so often in the last session of Congress. Sadly, Congress seems to have learned nothing from the parent revolt on data collection and social emotional profiling that blocked the bill.

While there will be a more detailed report coming soon, here are three important initial observations:

1.) The government still believes it is entitled to your children’s information.

Three of the four witnesses were very much in favor of continued or expanded student data mining, and all of them are or have been intimately involved with the Institute for Education Sciences (IES) that is to be reauthorized by SETRA.

Two witnesses, Dr. Nathaniel Schwartz and Dr. Diane Whitmore Schwanzenbach, are part of organizations that are feeding at the government trough, i.e. receiving major grants from IES. The third pro-data witness was Dr. Grover Whitehurst, who was the first head of IES when it was created in 2002 to begin the womb-to-tomb state longitudinal database system.

Their overarching theme was that constant data mining and research was essential to make federal education programs and education in general more effective; therefore, any efforts to minimize data collection and enhance parental consent or transparency of what is collected in the reauthorization should not be tolerated. This is all despite the fact that the overwhelming number of federally funded education programs has either been ineffective or harmful.

Sadly, research showing what works (phonics in reading and standard algorithms in math) and what doesn’t (Common Core, pre-K, and home visiting) in education is ignored if it does not fit with the prevailing ideological and profit agendas of the education establishment of both parties.

2.) Legitimate student privacy concerns only received lip service.

Rachel Stickland of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy was the only true privacy advocate of the four witnesses. She courageously went against the flow of data grabbers, touching on many important points in her testimony:

While parents generally support the use of research and evidence to drive decision-making in education, policymakers must consider legitimate parental concerns over the use and disclosure of student data stored in statewide longitudinal data systems or SLDSs, and any federal repository of personal student information, for research or other purposes. Parents generally believe education should be in the control of their local community and that a student’s data should remain within the school or district for the benefit of the child. When state or federal agencies access identifiable student data without parental consent, many parents perceive this action as government overreach.

Other parents recognize that data collected on individuals, even when limited to certain elements and collected ostensibly for one purpose, could be expanded in scope and subjected to mission-creep, to be used for purposes beyond the original prescribed intent. K-12 student data currently maintained by most states in their SLDS contain upwards of 700 highly sensitive personal data elements, including students’ disciplinary records, disabilities, immigration status, and homelessness data. The comprehensive nature of these data sets creates life-long dossiers on individuals, and could quickly become a go-to repository for other state agencies or the federal government.

She is absolutely correct that life-long dossiers are being created. Sadly, the repositories she mentions as a very real concern are in a way already here. Here is the section of federal regulations dealing with all the ways student data may be shared without parental consent in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the 43-year-old student privacy law we have previously discussed. These regulations show that individual education data may be shared with:

(3) The disclosure is, subject to the requirements of §99.35, to authorized representatives of—

(i) The Comptroller General of the United States;

(ii) The Attorney General of the United States;

(iii) The Secretary [of Education]; or

(iv) State and local educational authorities.

3.) The escalating psychological profiling of students was almost completely ignored.

Besides trying to expand social emotional research and data collection on children in the last version of SETRA, we have previously discussed how it is happening in state accountability plans under ESSA, preschool, the Nation’s Report Card test — the NAEP — and a myriad of other programs and commissions. No Committee members asked about it, and Rachel Stickland was the only witness who came close to mentioning it in her testimony:

It’s not difficult to imagine how this gold mine of data could be repurposed for political or ideological gain, which is one reason that our coalition supports maintaining the Higher Education Act’s 2008 ban on the creation of a federal student unit-record system.

The addition of social emotional research was the by far the biggest objection to the SETRA bill last time around, and the progressives are doing no better selling that concept now than then, especially since Stickland’s very proper concern about political manipulation seems to be coming true. The American Principles Project and Education Liberty Watch both strongly agree with Stickland about keeping the prohibition on the student unit-record system and have testified to that point to the Commission on Evidence-based Policymaking, the entity created by Congress to try to tear down that vital student privacy safeguard.

Our conclusions and recommendations for SETRA and federal student data research have not changed since the last time the full House Education and Workforce Committee held a hearing on this topic in 2016. It is absolutely imperative that the social emotional research and profiling issue be dealt with — as well as updating FERPA to be relevant for the 21st century with regard to data privacy, security, and transparency of use for students and families — before SETRA is reauthorized.

Photo credit: Lucelia Ribeiro via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0


Dr. Karen Effrem is trained as a pediatrician and serves as president of Education Liberty Watch and the executive director of the Florida Stop Common Core Coalition.

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