House Education Committee Holds Hearing on Balancing Evidence-Based Policymaking with Data Privacy

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House committee discusses the intersection between educational research and the need for federal, state, and local governments to promulgate effective oversight policies that mitigate data-security challenges.

On January 30, the House Education and the Workforce Committee held a hearing entitled Protecting Privacy, Promoting Policy: Evidence-Based Policymaking and the Future of Education. The session highlighted the intersection between educational research activities and the need for federal, state, and local governments to promulgate effective oversight policies that mitigate the data security challenges research involving student data entails.

Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC) noted, "Education research can be a powerful tool to help our students, but that information should not come at the cost of a student's private and personal information." Acknowledging that technological advances abound, the Chairwoman went on to identify the public's consistent demand for privacy protections as the main impetus for convening the hearing.

The panel of witnesses included Dr. Paul Ohm, Professor, Georgetown University Law Center; Ms. Jane Robbins, Senior Fellow, American Principles Project Foundation; Dr. Carey Wright, State Superintendent, Mississippi Department of Education; and Dr. Neal Finkelstein, Senior Program Director, Innovation Studies WestEd.

While Chairwoman Foxx added the caveat that the hearing was not called to discuss any particular legislation, she noted that it could serve to inform future updates of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Education Sciences Reform Act (ESRA). FERPA is a federal statute that governs the privacy of student education records and gives parents the authority to monitor and edit their child's information. ESRA established the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), an independent research arm of the Department of Education charged with providing "national leadership in expanding fundamental knowledge and understanding of education from early childhood through postsecondary study."

Witnesses offered their insights on how Congress might address some of the challenges facing research-driven policies, including the need to protect student records. Ohm mentioned "multi-party computation" and "differential privacy" as two emerging technologies in cryptographic science that may be helpful in promoting data confidentiality; he suggested that Congress might consider ways to encourage investment in their development through future legislative efforts. However, Ohm repeatedly stressed that there is no "silver bullet" with which to solve all of the many complicated issues involved in protecting student privacy while collecting data needed to inform policy decisions.

Additionally, members of the committee expressed their belief that policies should make it easier — not harder — for educators at the local level to deploy technologies to help students succeed. Congressman Jared Polis (D-CO) noted that it is important "to make sure that federal law does not hinder any state efforts to raise the bar in protecting student privacy nor hinder the innovation and personalized learning that can be achieved through educational technology." He continued by voicing a concern that new policies could create "new requirements or paperwork for schools, and yet another burden passed along to teachers." With this in mind, he proposed there should be a baseline level of privacy that technology providers must comply with, rather than leaving it to school administrators and teachers to comb through pages of contracts to assure that student privacy will be appropriately protected.

Robbins offered members of the committee a perspective that called into question the appropriate role of the government in evidence-based policymaking, particularly when the "subjects of the research and analysis are human beings." She conceded in her testimony that "unbiased scientific research, for example, is vital for policymaking" but that "the idea that the government should be able to vacuum up mountains of personal data and employ it for whatever purposes it deems useful" may be in some instances contrary to the dignity of American citizens.

While it is not immediately clear whether the committee will soon embark on updating FERPA and ESRA, the hearing did solidify that any endeavor to do so requires a careful, thoughtful approach. Striking a balance between the need for data-collection and protecting data privacy is a challenge that will likely deepen as technology continues to advance.

Kathryn Branson is an associate with Ulman Public Policy.

© 2018 Kathryn Branson. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.