Last December, you may remember that the U.S. Senate passed the Strengthening Education Through Research Act through unanimous consent. It’s designed to reauthorize the structure of education research at the Institute for Education Sciences. At the time, because the House had passed a similar version of education-research reauthorization in 2014, during a previous session of Congress, there was a decent chance that SETRA would cross the finish line.
There was also optimism because Congress had just passed ESSA, and SETRA was essentially seen as politically innocuous compared to ESSA.
But in the ensuing months, after being referred to the House education committee, the bill has stalled. Why?
At least part of the answer might have to do with a separate education law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA. Congress has been wrestling for some time with reauthorizing and updating FERPA, which many see as outdated in the current school environment that often emphasizes a variety of data collected about students. But FERPA is a political hot potato, because of concerns among some privacy advocates that current data-collection practices play too fast and loose with important, personal information about students, and that these should be reined in or subject to more rigorous oversight in some fashion by a reauthorized FERPA.
The House education committee held a hearing about student-data privacy and education research issues in March. Various attempts to overhaul the law in Congress have, not unlike SETRA, run aground. While some giving testimony, including an education researcher and state education department official, stressed the importance of data collection to their work, a privacy advocate argued that parents should have more information about what kind of data on their child are being collected, and should also have the right to opt out of having their child’s data stored in state information systems.
At the hearing, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn. and the House committee chairman, noted his concerns about the extent to which parents and school officials were aware of the extent of data collection.
Education Research: Hostage or Not?
Essentially, privacy advocates’ concerns on these issues are impacting SETRA’s prospects as well as debates about FERPA, said Michele McLaughlin, the president of Knowledge Alliance, which has supported SETRA. But in her view, SETRA is not an appropriate vehicle to hash out how Congress should handle student privacy—McLaughlin said she believes SETRA is ultimately “being held hostage for FERPA.”
“Their concerns overall were for FERPA, not with SETRA per se,” McLaughlin said, referring to privacy advocates. “I think that community was listened to.”
McLaughlin also said that in her view, privacy advocates’ concerns ultimately apply to K-12 vendors and not to education researchers.
But Rachael Stickland, the co-founder and co-chair of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy who testified at the March House hearing and expressed concerns about current data-collection practices, said that while her group’s primary focus is indeed making changes to FERPA, because SETRA references FERPA, SETRA is an important part of the overall conversation.
“Our concern is that if we’re going to move forward with SETRA, we at least think they should be in tandem, or maybe as a priority, looking at FERPA and approving that, before we authorize another law to continue and expand federal research,” Stickland said.
Stickland also expressed concerns about SETRA’s ongoing support for state longitudinal data systems, and how SETRA includes a reference to research on social and emotional learning, something her group is particularly concerned about with respect to student privacy.
The New Evidence-Based Policy Commission
There’s another potential factor that may be holding up SETRA’s progress, and FERPA’s for that matter: the new Commission on Evidence-Based Policy that President Barack Obama signed into existence in March.
The commission will take a big inventory of available data, figure out how to protect personal data in federal research programs, and decide whether and how to create a federal database of information across agencies for research and other purposes.
The commission has 18 months to make final recommendations to Congress.
Given that it will be some time before the commission completes its work, its mere presence for now may be dampening enthusiasm to push through bills related to education research and privacy.