Parents, teachers and privacy advocates are urging a federal commission not to bend to requests to change a federal law so that a centralized federal database of students’ personal data can be established. (See letter below.)

The Education Department has plans to build a system of records that will collect detailed data on thousands of students — even though experts say there are not sufficient safeguards to protect student privacy. And the influential Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has supported a number of school reforms implemented by the Obama administration, recently announced that a 2017 higher-education-advocacy priority is collecting data on student outcomes.

Supporters of the creation of a federal database say it will help schools better counsel students about their post-secondary education and help policymakers make smarter decisions. Critics are concerned that the data will be misused, released to third parties — or hacked.  That has, unfortunately, happened before, such as in 2014, when the personnel records and security-clearance files of more than 22 million people stored by the Office of Personnel Management were hacked.

A coalition of organizations — including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy — just sent a letter to the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking urging that it not support the lifting of a ban on such a database, which was established in the Higher Education Act of 2008. It says in part, referring to PII, or personally identifiable information:

Any recommendation by the Commission to establish a federal data clearinghouse of student PII could effectively create lifelong dossiers on nearly every individual in the nation. Instead, we strongly believe that the federal government should use aggregate, de-identified student information already maintained by states or districts for research or policy decisions.

How President-elect Donald Trump would feel about such a database is unclear. He has criticized a strong federal role in education — and even threatened to eliminate the Education Department, but he has not made an issue of student data privacy. Williamson Evers,  a former assistant education secretary and one of the people Trump is thought to be considering for education secretary, has expressed concerns about student privacy, such as in the following 2013 testimony:

When I was U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, the student privacy office was part of my portfolio.  Until December 2011, the U.S. Department of Education interpreted the student privacy protections in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) strictly, but reasonably.
But in 2011, the Obama administration turned those protections upside down. The Obama administration reinterpreted technical terms and provisions of the law to allow access to student personal data to non-education government agencies and to private vendors and contractors. It removed requirements that parents had to give consent if third-parties were given access to student personal data. The Obama administration made this change, in large measure, to facilitating workforce planning by government agencies.
We live in a time of concern about abuse of data collection and data management — by the NSA, the IRS, and other agencies. Ohio policymakers should be concerned about the privacy of student personal data and its possible misuse.

The student data privacy issue has brought together allies from different political camps. As Inside Higher Ed, a trade publication, notes, the ACLU is joined in opposition to lifting the ban with Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), who is likely to take over the leadership of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

In the following letter, a number of organizations explain why a centralized federal database of student personal data is a dangerous idea.