Tuesday, April 16, 2013

How the National Student Database Came to Be

April 16, 2013

How does a nation founded on individual liberty suddenly find itself in a place where, as we reported a few weeks ago, a single database now holds personal and education information on millions of public school students from Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, and North Carolina – all without their parents’ knowledge or consent? How did a law allowing for this Orwellian monster ever get passed, and why did no one hear about it?

It has happened incrementally, and it turns out we have been on this road for a very long time.

In December, 2011, the Department of Education released its “Final Rule” on the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), putting in place the final pieces to allow this database to become a reality. But it would be inaccurate to blame the Department, or certainly to blame them for the whole thing. Rather, their report points out the mile markers passed along the way.

FERPA was adopted in 1974 to protect the privacy of school children by preserving the rights of parents and “eligible students” (students 18 and older, or students enrolled in post-secondary education such as college) to access their education records and to keep others from doing the same. As society and technology have changed, adjustments have been made to FERPA as well, though no drastic shifts took place for 30 years.

During that time, though, computer technology took off, followed by the world-wide web. Now everything is stored in digital format on a computer somewhere.

Along the way Congress passed laws to make the process of building and storing those records more efficient. And they passed other laws encouraging states to share their records among various institutions in order to make their education systems more efficient and more effective.

First came the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science (“America COMPETES) Act of 2007. This act first set forth the vision of building “statewide longitudinal data systems” (SLDS) – massive databases to store student data for sharing among a state’s education institutions. For instance, the state’s department of education can communicate with the local school district, and also with a state-run college or university, to share information.

The upside cannot be ignored: colleges and universities would get a better idea of what kind of students they will be receiving and how prepared they will be, while public school districts are able to measure how well they are doing at preparing their students for college. No one was going to have a problem with those goals.

Then Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), providing funding for any state that would meet certain federal goals, including the establishment of SLDS. The Department of Education in its report of December, 2011, cited this as proof that data sharing is not only allowed but expected: “Title VIII of ARRAS appropriated $250,000,000 to the Institute of Education Sciences …to provide competitive grants to State[s] for the development of SLDS that include early childhood through postsecondary and workforce information.”

It wasn’t until the Department offered these FERPA rules that many began to picture the dangers of a national database of school children. At that point, though, we spoke up against the idea. The Department’s response was to split hairs.

“The Department is not establishing a national database of PII (personally identifiable information) from education records and we have no intention to do so…. The right to develop SLDS or link SLDS across State lines is reserved to the States…. In fact, HEA [the Higher Education Act of 1965 as amended] specifically states that it does not prohibit ‘a State or consortium of States from developing, implementing, or maintaining state-developed databases that track individuals over time, including student unit record systems that contain information related to enrollment, attendance, graduation and retention rates, student financial assistance, and graduate employment outcomes’.”

The federal government has suggested such a database and pays money to those states that will work together to create one and connect it to others. But the Department points out that this “would not be ‘national’ because the Federal Government would not play a role in its operation.” Clearly, this is a matter of semantics – and incorrect semantics at that. (Sports, for instance, is filled with “national” things that are not “federal”: the National Football League, the National Hockey League, and baseball’s National League, to name a few.)

Whether the Federal Government runs the database or only calls for and funds it, Congress bears responsibility for its creation. Most important, the data are still being gathered into one place, often without parental consent. And government actors are collecting data on our children to track them from “early childhood through postsecondary [education] and [the] workforce.”

How Do We Start to Fix This?

The greatest safeguard for a child’s privacy is a parent. As technology advances, more and more people and agencies will want to use that technology and the data available to further their own goals. Parents must be empowered to protect the privacy of their children.

The proposed Parental Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution will strengthen the role of parents in the child’s life by assuring that “The liberty of parents to direct the upbringing, education, and care of their children is a fundamental right.”

Our investigation of the national database and the spreading “Core Curriculum” is ongoing. We are learning more each week, and working to share that information with you. The more we learn, the more we see the very real need for the Parental Rights Amendment.

If you still have friends or family members who have not signed the petition to preserve these rights, encourage them to do so at parentalrights.org/petition.

Together we can protect our children by preserving our parental rights.


Michael Ramey
Director of Communications & Research

All quotes (except the Parental Rights Amendment) are from Federal Register Vol. 76, No. 232, Friday, December 2, 2011, pp.75604-75660. (34 CFR Part 99)

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