From the Statehouse

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.”

legal opinion

Tennessee’s attorney general sides with charter schools in battle over student information

Herbert H. Slatery III was appointed Tennessee attorney general in 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam, for whom he previously served as general counsel.

Tennessee’s attorney general says requests for student contact information from state-run charter school operators don’t violate a federal student privacy law, but rather are “entirely consistent with it.”

The opinion from Herbert Slatery III, issued late on Wednesday in response to a request by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, was a win for charter schools in their battle with the state’s two largest districts.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

McQueen quickly responded by ordering school leaders in Memphis and Nashville to comply. In letters dispatched to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Director Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, McQueen gave the districts a deadline, adding that they will face consequences if they refuse.

“If you do not provide this information by Sept. 25, 2017, to the (Achievement School District) and any other charter school or charter authorizer who has an outstanding request, we will be forced to consider actions to enforce the law,” she wrote.

Neither superintendent responded immediately to requests for comment, but school board leaders in both districts said Thursday that their attorneys were reviewing the matter.

Chris Caldwell, chairman for Shelby County’s board, said he’s also concerned “whether the timeframe stated gives us enough time to make sure families are aware of what is happening.”

Wednesday’s flurry of events heats up the battle that started in July when charter operators Green Dot and LEAD requested student contact information under the state’s new charter law, which gives districts 30 days to comply with such requests. School boards in both Memphis and Nashville refused, arguing they had the right under the federal student privacy law to restrict who gets the information and for what reasons.

The attorney general said sharing such information would not violate federal law.

The requested information falls under “student directory information,” and can be published by school districts without a parent’s permission. For Shelby County Schools, this type of information includes names, addresses, emails and phone numbers.

To learn what information is at stake and how it’s used, read our in-depth explainer.

The opinion also backs up the new state law, which directs districts to share information that charter operators say they need to recruit students and market their programs in Tennessee’s expanding school-choice environment.

However, the opinion allowed for districts to have a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents of their right to opt out of sharing such information. It was not clear from the opinion if the two school districts have exhausted that time.

A spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said Tuesday the district had not yet distributed forms that would allow parents to opt out of having their students’ information shared, although the district’s parent-student handbook already includes instructions for doing so.

Below, you can read the attorney general’s opinion and McQueen’s letters to both superintendents:

Clarification, Sept. 14, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify the school boards’ arguments for not sharing the information.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.