Data security efforts raise concerns from Ritz allies

Three new bills under consideration this week could redefine how the state’s education data is managed, accessed, and stored.

The bills have different goals. While one seeks to connect multiple layers of Indiana students’ information in one place, pulling together K-12, college, and workforce data to learn what skills students need for future jobs, two others aim to defend against concerns about privacy.  

Despite their differences, all three bills have provoked concerns about who controls Indiana’s education data and how to protect it.

One concern stems from arguments by critics of the new Common Core standards. By adopting the new standards, the critics have said, Indiana could make its students’ data vulnerable to being shared outside the state, such as with the federal government or private vendors. Other states that have participated in the Common Core standards have signed agreements to share their students’ data with federal government, the critics point out.

Proponents of more sophisticated use of education data have advocated for creating large data warehouses that can be used, for example, to track student test scores over time with the hopes that the information could be useful in improving instruction, such as through teacher evaluation. But critics of this idea fear that the data-gathering could be used by the federal government to take control of educational decision making or put students’ personal information at risk of being stolen or sold to private companies.

Another point of contention in Indiana has to do with the ongoing battle between State Superintendent Glenda Ritz and Governor Mike Pence over the state’s education direction. While the battle between the two has to do with different ideas about how to improve schools, the weapons have been control over various state education apparatuses — and data is a key tool that each wants to control.

A new “data czar?”

It was House Bill 1003 that first raised alarms.

Authored by Rep. Steve Braun, R-Zionsville, it would create a new state agency under Gov. Mike Pence that aims to bring together data from K-12 schools, colleges, the state’s workforce development arm and business leaders with the goal of spotting trends and helping schools adapt to employer needs.

The bill immediately generated criticism from the state’s largest teachers union, which characterized the head of the new agency as a “data czar” and another threat to Ritz’s authority of the Indiana Department of Education and the data it manages.

Under the headline “Dangerous student, parent and teacher data bill being pushed in the Indiana legislature,” the Indiana State Teachers Association warned its affiliates on Jan. 18 on its blog that by creating the Indiana Knowledge Network, the bill essentially established “another new government bureaucracy” and asked supporters to oppose it.

“The bill essentially makes INK a new government database warehousing agency that will be controlled by Gov. Pence and his appointed director, who will become, in effect, the state’s ‘data czar,’ “ the post read.

The network actually already exists as the Indiana Workforce Intelligence System, a consortium that includes the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, the Indiana Commission on Higher Education, the Indiana Department of Education and Indiana University’s Indiana Business Research Center. Each group shares data and analysis.

But the bill aims to ratchet up the use of the data through a new state agency. Its board would be made up of appointees from the departments who provide data to it — education, higher education and workforce development. Also on the board would be Pence appointees from business and universities along with two members of the House and two from the Senate.

Braun argues the bill would only allow better use of data the state already is collecting. The idea, he said, is not to change the way data is collected or how each collecting agency uses it, BUT to make connections to try to better understand the job market and how well Indiana students are prepared for it.

“We hope to do what no other state is doing today, to accurately project the future job market to inform how the education system is developing curriculum for building those skill sets, or train existing workforces.”

But Ritz thinks the bill gives too much latitude for data collection without enough accountability, said John Barnes, her lobbyist.

“Our initial concerns were about the creation of someone who is a data czar,” Barnes said. “We’re concerned about too much power in the hands of too few people and insufficient checks and balances at a time when concerns about data privacy is a hot topic. We’re concerned that the governance committee doesn’t have enough oversight power. There aren’t enough teeth in that. We’d like to see that beefed up.”

Democrats on the House Committee on Commerce, Small Business and Economic Development, where the bill was passed last week, also said they might ask for changes when the bill is considered by the full House this week.

“It’s a great bill,” said Shelli VanDenburgh, D-Crown Point. “There are a lot of great things in here. However if this bill gives carte blanche to INK to have whatever data they need on any student and access to any data the department of education, and our state holds very close in privacy, I have concerns on that.”

A data repository

Another potential battle over data security came to the fore in today’s House Education Committee meeting, during a discussion of a second education data bill that also is being considered this week. House Bill 1320, authored by committee Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, creates a data repository for education records.

Behning said the House Bill 1320’s purpose is to make data that schools see, but parents generally don’t, accessible so parents can learn more about how their children are performing academically. For example, the state uses student test scores over the years to predict their likelihood of each student graduating on time, he said. State test score reports will include this information in the future and the data will be accessible to parents online, Behning said.

“The goal of this is to provide additional information to parents that they are not receiving,” he said.

Union leaders and other Ritz supporters came to the hearing with lots of questions about a provision that would put this new repository under the control of the state board, not Ritz. They feared that move could have potentially allowed the state board to work around Ritz or veto her decisions about when and what type of data was released.

The bill even attracted the attention of Diane Ravith, the educational historian who has become one of the nation’s most prominent opponents of standardized testing and what she calls “big data,” as well as a supporter of Ritz.

But the Behning quickly defused any controversy when he opened the hearing by offering an amendment to keep the data under Ritz’s control. Behning said placing the repository under the state board was an error and never his intent for the bill.

“That certainly changes some of our issues with the bill,” said John O’Neil, an Indiana State Teachers Association lobbyist. “We want to make sure this isn’t a new entity created that is under the CECI or the state board.”

The bill also aims to beef up data security by adding criminal penalties for anyone who releases data that can be directly tied to students. Doing so would be a misdemeanor under the bill, punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 or up to a year in jail.

Behning said he would hold off on a vote until later in the week to allow committee members to review amendments and other changes to the bill.

Common Core fix

A final data bill, Senate Bill 277, is designed specifically to preempt concerns about what data-sharing efforts could mean for students’ privacy. In Indiana, the concerns have swirled around a question of whether to implement the national Common Core learning standards.

During the 2013 legislative session, lawmakers responded to critics of the standards by passing a law that put a “pause” on the state’s implementation of the Common Core, This bill addresses a different concern of Common Core critics — that the standards could compromise students’ privacy.

While the Common Core itself does not require data sharing, several states adopted the standards at the same time they accepted federal Race to the Top education grants and also agreed to share data with the U.S. Department of Education.

Miller’s bill is aimed at addressing the worry that Indiana would have to share students’ personal information with the federal government or private companies.

“It’s intended to make clear when data can be shared,” Miller said. “Some folks think it may have been opened up to more of an opportunity to be shared. I’m not trying to stop anything we do currently.”

Indiana adopted Common Core standards in 2010, joining 45 other states that have agreed to follow them. The standards are aimed at making students “college and career ready” by the time they graduate high school and more able to compete against students educated in other countries. In Indiana, Common Core from opponents have argued the standards are not as strong as Indiana’s prior standards or or that they will cede too much control over the state’s education policy to the federal government, including control over student records.

“Until Common Core began, many parents had no idea how vulnerable their students’ data had become,” said Heather Crossin, co-founder of Hoosiers Against Common Core, who supports the bill. “They’d like to see their children’s right to privacy be assured.”

Common Core supporters have embraced the bill and the concept of data security, hoping to calm fears about the standards.
“There was no intent, no plan and no law that was going to compromise that data,” Derek Redelman, a Common Core supporter and vice president of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said of the national standards. “But if we can allay those concerns we are ready to do so.”

Frank Bush, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association, said data security and Common Core go well together.

“As a Common Core supporter we strongly support this bill,” he said. “I hope it will eliminate some of the fears.”