April 9, 2013
National Databases: Collecting Student-Specific
Data is unnecessary and Orwellian
William A. Estrada, Esq.
Director of Federal Relations
Will Estrada has been leading our efforts to defend homeschooling on Capitol Hill since 2006. As the oldest of eight kids, and a homeschool graduate who married a homeschool graduate, he has a passion for protecting homeschool freedom. Read more >>
HSLDA has previously written articles expressing concerns with the Common Core Standards established in 2009 and the move toward national standards, curriculum, and tests.
A related concern is the rise of state databases of student-specific data, and the recent push toward aligning them between states. We believe that this will lead to a national database of student-specific data.
Home School Legal Defense Association has long opposed the creation of a national database of student-specific data. We believe that such national databases threaten the privacy of students, could be abused by government officials or business interests that may gain access to the data, threaten the safety of young people if their data is breached, and are not necessary in order to educate young people. Education should be about instilling academic knowledge, not some Orwellian attempt to track students from pre-school through college graduation. We believe that although these databases are being advanced by individual states, they are aligned between the states, and are being funded in part through the federal government’s Race to the Top program. They are becoming a de facto national database.
At this point, it does not appear that the data of students who are educated in homeschool or private school settings are being included in these databases. We are concerned, however, that as national databases grow, it will become increasingly difficult to protect the personal information of homeschool and private school students. We are also concerned by calls from some proponents of these national databases to include the personal data of homeschool students.
How Did a “National Database” Get off the Ground?
The 2009 federal stimulus bill created the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (SFSF) program as “a new one-time appropriation of $53.6 billion.”1 With this money, the Department of Education would award states money in exchange for a commitment to develop and use pre-kindergarten through post-secondary and career data systems, among other criteria.
$4.35 billion was given to make competitive grants under the new “Race to the Top”2 (RTTT) fund. RTTT is an ongoing competition that encourages states to compete for federal funds by making certain changes in their state education policy. The U.S. Department of Education laid out the areas of reform the federal government wanted the states to address:
- “Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students for success in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy;
- Building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals how they can improve instruction;
- Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most; and
- Turning around our lowest-achieving schools.”3
The Department of Education’s 2013 budget allots “$850 million for additional Race to the Top awards, an increase of $301 million over the 2012 level.”4
Under RTTT, states that receive the grants are required to set up data systems where every public school student from early childhood programs to college will be identified in a system by a bar code showing student enrollment, demographics, transfers, teachers, test records, and transcripts.
While statewide data systems have been encouraged with federal grants in the past (America COMPETES Act passed by Congress in 2007), these grants were specifically for state data systems. Since 2009 states are not eligible for any RTTT funds if they do not have a data system that meets a federal standard.
In addition, in 2011 the Department of Education attached RTTT funding to its new Early Learning Challenge (ELC). ELC gives this money to states that meet standards and mandates for early education programs. Part of the standards that states must meet to receive these special funds are establishing statewide databases. Known as CEDs-Common Education Data Standards—they are “voluntary, common standards for a key set of education data elements at the early learning, k-12, and post-secondary levels developed through a national collaborative effort being led by the National Center for Educational Statistics.”5
The U.S. Department of Education, through RTTT, is consistently seeking to expand the criteria for data systems. “The Secretary [of Education] is also particularly interested in applications in which States propose working together to adapt one State’s statewide longitudinal data system so that it may be used, in whole or in part, by one or more other States, rather than having each State build or continue building such systems independently.”6
Supporters of RTTT are correct when they say that there is not currently a central database kept by the U.S. Department of Education. However, federal funds are being used to entice states to create databases of student-specific data which are linked between states through RTTT and the ELC. These programs’ strict database requirements are leading to a de facto national database that is being encouraged by the federal government and being implemented by states which are desperate for federal cash. As a result, we are seeing before our eyes the creation of a “national database” where every single public school student’s personal information and academic history will be stored.
In the most recent development, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently announced that it was providing $100 million to support a database of student-specific data which could be accessed by any state which opted into the program. This database has the ability to track students, their educational progress, and a vast degree of personal information about every student. This database is run and operated by a company called inBloom, and nine states (Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, New York, North Carolina, Massachusetts) have already uploaded student information into this database. The only jurisdiction where we have verified that homeschool student data is being included is New York City school district. We are continuing to investigate the other states.
What’s so Bad about a National Database Anyway?
HSLDA believes that these state databases of student-specific data which are funded in part by RTTT and the ELC violate the spirit—if not the actual intent—of federal law banning national databases, which was part of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) found at 20 U.S.C. § 7911. Due to this federal law, as well as concerns about the growth of these national databases, HSLDA filed public comments opposing the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund’s use of federal funds to support state databases of student-specific data due to privacy concerns.
In May of 2011, HSLDA also filed public commentsin response to a proposed rule change to regulations governing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA). FERPA is the federal law that protects the privacy of student-specific data. However, HSLDA believes that the rule change put in place December of 2011 weakened the privacy of student-specific data. The U.S. Department of Education enacted these regulatory changes to make it easier for states and private companies—like inBloom—to create databases of student specific data and then share the information between states.
A national database of student-specific data is very concerning for many reasons. The national databases being created now include detailed records of students, including race, gender, birth information, learning disabilities, detailed academic records, and much more. This information is being collected soon after birth, all the way through graduation from college.
The more personal information that is included, the greater the danger to the student’s privacy and safety if the data is breached. Will certain data make it harder for students to get into higher education? Will it be disclosed to government employers, or even private employers?
HSLDA believes that each student is unique, with far more to offer society than just the sum of their academic years. Government tracking students from soon after birth until they graduate from college is Orwellian and seems like a “Big Brother” mentality, and has no place in a free society.
It is important to note that there are many reasons for aggregated student data to be available. Such data is helpful for researchers, and it is reported widely so that parents and policy makers can determine how students are doing academically. But HSLDA believes that there are very little reasons for the government to track student-specific data.
Are these National Databases Including Information on Homeschool Students?
While we have not heard of homeschool information being uploaded in these new databases, we have been told that it is capable of storing private school and homeschool records. In addition, what will happen if a parent removes their child from public school in order to homeschool him or her? As far as we can determine right now, there is no mechanism for that student’s personal information to be deleted from the national database.
What Can I Do to Stop this National Database?
The privacy of our children is one of the most important things to parents. The rise of national databases is justifiably concerning. At the federal level, HSLDA continues to work to defund and eliminate Race to the Top, the Early Learning Challenge, and other federal programs that are using federal funds—your tax dollars—to entice the states into creating national databases in exchange for federal grants. However, since RTTT and the ELC are priorities of the Obama administration, it will be difficult to end these programs.
The states, however, can certainly reject these federal funds in order to safeguard student data. We encourage you to contact your state legislators, including your state’s governor, to discuss this issue with them. Ask them about their position on the issue. Find your governor’s current information here. And urge your state officials to reject these national databases of student-specific data.
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