Parent Groups Call for Congressional Data-Privacy Hearings

By Benjamin Herold — July 23, 2014 3 min read
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A newly formed coalition of parent groups issued a call Wednesday for Congressional hearings into concerns regarding inappropriate uses of students’ sensitive educational information.

The group, known as the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, is also seeking improvements to the two major federal laws affecting student data privacy, as well as an overall legislative approach focused on minimizing the collection of sensitive student information while maximizing opportunities for parental notification and consent.

“We are alarmed about ill-thought-through federal policies that, instead of promoting safeguards against non-consensual disclosure and downstream use of children’s personally identifiable information, actually promote policies in which a child’s highly sensitive personal data is disclosed to third parties for purposes that go well beyond reasonable educational uses and deny parents the right of notification or consent,” according to a letter sent by the group to leaders of the U.S. House and Senate education committees.

Signatories to the letter include:

  • Leonie Haimson, the executive director of New York City-based non-profit Class Size Matters and a leading figure in the public opposition to the controversial educational data-management group, which announced in April that it would shut its doors.
  • Rachael Stickland, the founder of Colorado group School Belongs to the Children and a leader in the push by some parents and activists to get the 86,000-student Jefferson County district to pull out of a pilot project with inBloom last November.
  • Diane Ravitch, an influential critic of so-called “corporate education reform” and the head of Tucson, Ariz.-based advocacy group the Network for Public Education.
  • About 30 other individuals and groups.

Over the past 12 months, student data privacy has become a hot-button educational issue.

Proponents say educational data use is key to personalizing student learning, helping educators tailor classroom teaching, and allowing vendors to develop new instructional and administrative tools to improve schools’ operations. But in addition to the conflagration surrounding inBloom, flashpoints have emerged around vendors (such as Google, who acknowledged to Ed Week in March that it had been data-mining millions of student email messages, a practice the company says it has since stopped), states (most of whom now manage longitudinal data systems, some of which parents have struggled to access), and schools and districts (a growing number of which have suffered breaches in which sensitive student information was compromised.)

[Check out Ed Week’s complete coverage of educational data and privacy issues.]

The new coalition is particularly concerned about recent changes to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, calling for congressional hearings into “why the U.S. Department of Education has abdicated its historic role as the guardian of educational privacy rights.” Among other things, the changes expanded the definition of who may be considered “school officials” and thus be exempted from FERPA requirements.

The coalition also wants Congress to “review privacy and security practices of the multiple state longitudinal data systems created in direct response to various federal programs in recent years.”

In a statement accompanying the letter, Haimson said there has been much discussion of the need to better involve parents in conversations about student data privacy, but not enough has yet been done.

“We are no longer waiting to be invited to this debate,” Haimson said.

The last name of School Belongs to the Children founder Rachael Stickland was spelled incorrectly in a previous version of this story.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.