A bipartisan push in Congress could lead to a national database containing personally identifiable information on college students. States can act now to limit collection and sharing of such data to stop this unconstitutional threat to privacy.
The Higher Education Act of 2008 banned federal educational databases containing personal identifiable data. But there is an ongoing push to lift the ban and allow the Department of Education to gather and store large amounts of information on post-secondary students.
The Bush administration first proposed a federal student unit-record system in 2005. A coalition of organizations, including the ACLU, Parents Across America and the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy recently sent a letter to the federal Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking opposing any type of federal database.
“We strongly oppose any proposal that would lead to the creation of a central federal clearinghouse or linked data sets containing the personally identifiable information (“PII”) of all students, commonly referred to as a federal student unit-record system or national database. We cannot overstate the threat to student privacy that would be posed by the development of such a database, including breach, malicious attack, or use of student PII for purposes not initially intended.”
According to the coalition, K-12 student data currently collected by state departments of education in statewide longitudinal data systems (SLDS) that would potentially be shared with the federal database generally extend well beyond traditional administrative data to include upwards of 700 specific personal data elements, including students’ immigrant status, disabilities, disciplinary incidents, and homelessness status.
“Data collected ostensibly for the sole purpose of research but without the individual’s consent or knowledge would likely be merged with other federal agency data sets, to follow students into the workplace and beyond, and could include data from their military service, tax returns, criminal and health records. If this granular level of sensitive information were available in a universal U.S. student record database, it could quickly become a go-to repository for purposes that should never be allowed.”
A bipartisan coalition in Congress has emerged in support of eliminating the federal ban on collecting this kind of information. Private organizations have also joined the push. The Gates Foundation said last fall that collecting data on student-level outcomes was one of its key higher ed priorities for the coming year.
NULLIFY THROUGH STATE ACTION
Depending on Congress to protect privacy isn’t the best plan. With pressure building to lift the ban and create a student database, it will probably happen.
Of course, the federal government doesn’t have any authority to create an educational database to begin with. In fact, the Department of Education is an unconstitutional federal agency. The Constitution delegates no power authorizing to the feds to involve themselves in education at all. That power remains exclusively with state and local governments.
Despite the federal government’s unconstitutional usurpation, there is a way states can effectively nullify any federal plan to build a national student database. They can just not collect the information, or refuse to share it with the feds.
The federal government will undoubtedly need state and local agencies to gather and share information for any national database. If the states prohibit data collection, there won’t be any data to share. State agencies could also anonymize any data they collect, or limit sharing to keep personal information out of federal hands.
States should act now to protect the privacy of their students, and ensure information does not end up in some unconstitutional federal database. Simple legislation to prohibit or limit data collection at the state level, and to limit the retention and sharing of any data collected, can nix this proposed federal information collection before it gets started.