These 3 Student Data Bills Could Ruin Your Kid’s Life

These 3 Student Data Bills Could Ruin Your Kid’s Life

Sorry, but I don’t happen to believe that lifelong surveillance and surveillance-based manipulation of my choices should be the price of a public education.
Jenni White
By

For years, I researched and wrote about the State Longitudinal Database Systems (SLDS) here in Oklahoma and across the nation (here, here and here), warning that these ill-advised legislative efforts to codify “transparency and accountability” in public schools would end up creating what could only be considered a national database.

In 2013 I testified before our state legislature on the dangers of SLDS, which are a system of interconnected state data streams that flow into a giant federal data river collecting information starting when small humans enter the public school system. Sorry, but I don’t happen to believe that lifelong surveillance and surveillance-based manipulation of my choices should be the price of a public education. Nobody needs his preschool discipline records following him for life because some data company in cahoots with the government—well beyond my control—wants to plunder education records to make a buck.

The arguments I used then remain valid today: there is no way to provide either the bureaucracy-driven “transparency” or “accountability” government officials now desire for public education without collecting countless data points of information on nearly every facet of a student’s life.  Of course, that is exactly what schools do today: collect endless reams of data.

Is Your Kid’s Religion the Government’s Business?

Sadly, states (including Oklahoma) have had only varying degrees of success stopping some of the unbelievable amounts of data being collected on public school students. When I say “unbelievable amounts,” I have actual screen shots from the National Center for Education Statistics’ “National Education Data Model” (no longer online, incidentally), which provided model data points to be collected from students for very important educational information like “routine health care procedure required at school,” “number of teeth,” “orthodontic appliances,” “voting status,” “religious affiliation” (these two being big no-no’s in the world of data collection), “weeks of gestation,” and “weight at birth.”

The Common Education Data Standards, a one-stop A-Z data collecting shop where anyone can see the possible data collection titles populating public school SLDS, are still online. Here, a cursory search of the letter “I” will return 133 main records, from “IDEA Disability Type” through “Itinerant Teacher.”

I was most interested in the category of “Incident Behavior.” Here one can find 30 different sub-category data tags for school officials to use in describing any number of ways students can misbehave on campus, including “Sexual Harassment,” “Obscene Behavior,” and “Threat/Intimidation.” Thank goodness the government has spent so many taxpayer dollars finding ways to label accused students with subjective and often juvenile behaviors that will follow them throughout their academic careers—and, thanks to some new bills in play, especially, possibly their adult lives.

These State Databases Share Information Nationally

The federal government could curb this nonsense completely by simply refusing to kowtow to the big data vendors who monetize this information for themselves and their stockholders, but thanks to the lobbying prowess of Google, Microsoft, and others, Congress continues to write bills allowing expansions to and connections between state longitudinal databases.

Today, state education departments are required to send student data collected through the SLDS to the federal level, creating one giant database, although creation of any kind of national student database is completely illegal. Title IX, General Provisions, Part E, Uniform Provisions, Subpart 2, Other Provisions, Section 9531 of federal school law prohibits a nationwide database related to the Department of Education: “Nothing in this Act (other than section 1308(b)) (Department of Education) shall be construed to authorize the development of a nationwide database of personally identifiable information on individuals involved in studies or other collections of data under this Act.”

Apparently, the federal government continues to have no respect for this prohibition against a national database, as no less than three bills to expand and consolidate student data are headed to Congress in this, and upcoming weeks. If Americans aren’t interested in attempting to deal with a government fully armed with every tidbit of knowledge from the time we entered the doors of a public school or daycare, these bills need to be stopped immediately.

Here’s the Skinny on These Three Bills

The College Transparency Act (CTA) (H.R. 2434) would overturn the Higher Education Act’s ban on a federal student unit-record system and establish a system of lifelong tracking of individuals by the federal government.

The CTA is the last piece of the SLDS puzzle. It would hook together all elements of a student’s life from cradle to grave in what is known as a “unit record,” or records linked specifically to a certain student rather than de-identified to preserve at least a semblance of anonymity. Not only is educational data being collected and stored in a student’s state K12 educational record, states share it with many, many different federal agencies. If the CTA passes, colleges would be required to share student data with not only the Federal Student Aid Office but the departments of Treasury, Defense, and Veterans Affairs, the Social Security Administration, and the Census Bureau.

The Student Privacy Protection Act (H.R. 3157), would amend the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), to establish ways to protect student data and notify parents of data breaches or security violations without restoring the federal protections for students’ “personally identifiable information” (PII) that the Obama administration lifted through a legally dubious rule rewrite in 2012.

SPPA uses open-ended catchphrases to describe how data will be collected by and for “legitimate educational interest” while releasing personally identifiable information without consent of students or their families. In addition, it removes restrictions on student data disclosures to state and local authorities in relation to the juvenile justice system. Consequently, any mistakes made at a young age can “seamlessly” follow students throughout their remaining educational careers, ruining any chance of “starting over” if either of the other two bills are passed and databases merged.

The Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act (FEPA) (H.R. 4174) would create a “unified evidence-building plan” for the entire federal government. In essence, that’s a national database containing data from every federal agency on every citizen, ostensibly to make sure Congress is spending money on programs that work (snort). With a gazillion-dollar national debt, there’s no possible way to even entertain a notion that this is a reasonable idea.

In that vein, the FEPA is arguably the worst of these three bills, mandating every federal agency to collect data to facilitate the use of “evidence”(meaning data, not politics-untainted, proven outcomes) in policymaking. The unintended consequences here boil down to lighting a huge green bulb to attract anyone or anything desiring to collect data on any American citizen on any topic to provide “evidence” that the policies and laws they propose to create are sound.

Although the concept of data collection can be somewhat esoteric, as part of my testimony to the legislature, I created several flow charts to show how data is collected and travels through the systems currently related to K-12 education. If you study these and choose to follow up on the research it took to create them, there will be no doubt in your mind that American government is well underway in the endeavor toward creating a fully surveilled society. This should scare us all.

Jenni White is cofounder of Restore Oklahoma Public Education and a former public school science teacher.

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