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Bipartisan Report Advocates Use of Data to Improve Government, Including Education

A government report put into play during the Obama administration is pushing Congress, against privacy objections, to repeal current bans that limit how federally collected education data is used while also putting in place privacy and security protections.

The report from the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking isn't about education specifically; it's broader than that. The commission was established by a joint act of Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama in March 2016. The act directed the commission to consider how to strengthen government's evidence-building and policymaking efforts. In particular, the feds wanted the commission to study how data collected by the government could be used to improve its programs and policies.

A recent article by the Future of Privacy Forum's FERPA/Sherpa project did an analysis of the education aspects of the report. According to FPF Education Policy Counsel, Amelia Vance, the federal government collects a rich stream of data in the education sector. For example, the Federal Student Aid office at the U.S. Department of Education collects data on demographics, income, assets and educational attainment; while the National Center for Education Statistics gathers school data on graduation rates and pricing. Aggregating this information with other data, Vance's analysis suggested, could be put to good use by allowing students to figure out how they might be expected to perform at certain institutions compared to their peers with similar characteristics or the value of their degree in the employment market compared to the cost of their education.

At the pre-K-12 and college levels, a student unit record ban, enacted in 2008 as part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, limits aspects of data collection to prevent the federal government from developing or maintaining a database with data on all students. This particular issue, according to the report, "received more feedback" than any other single topic within the commission's scope. Two-thirds of comments opposed overturning this ban or otherwise enabling the feds to compile records about individual students.

In response, however, the commission rejected the notion that "increasing access to confidential data [presumes] significantly increasing privacy risk." "There are steps that can be taken to improve data security and privacy protections beyond what exists today, while increasing the production of evidence," the report stated. "Modern technology and statistical methods, combined with transparency and a strong legal framework, create the opportunity to use data for evidence building in ways that were not possible in the past."

As Vance explained, the commission advocated the use of a "pre-existing legal framework to restrict the use of the data for 'statistical purposes' only." Those who violate the rules "would be subject to major penalties under the Confidential Information Protection and Statistical Efficiency Act (CIPSEA), which could include fines and/or jail time." CIPSEA is part of the E-Government Act of 2002.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers earlier this year introduced legislation to overturn the student unit ban. S.B. 1121 and H.R. 2434, the "College Transparency Act," would direct the Commissioner for Education Statistics to set up and maintain a "secure, privacy-protected postsecondary student data system" that would, among other goals, "provide more accurate, complete and customizable information for students and families making decisions about postsecondary education." Although those bills in both the Senate and Congress have been submitted, neither house has moved on them yet.

However, following the release of the latest report, those legislative efforts may get wind in their sails. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray said, during a press conference on the report, that they would be introducing bills to "codify the commission's recommendations."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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