Why Congress needs to fund student privacy initiatives

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The need for more privacy awareness, training and guidance in our schools could not be more urgent.

Recent high-profile privacy stories highlight just how serious the issue is, and how critical it is that states and districts have the knowledge and skills to safeguard their students’ information. Take, for example, the potential FERPA violation at New York’s Success Academy Charter School network; the recent ACLU report on digital privacy practices in Massachusetts; and the dozens of new state laws requiring educators to assume new roles and responsibilities.

Over the last year, members of Congress have proposed a slew of new bills, amendments, and commissions designed to help states and school districts protect students’ privacy. But passing effective laws takes time, and urgent action is needed today to safeguard students’ privacy.

Now, as lawmakers continue to develop these long-term policy solutions, Congress has an opportunity to take immediate action by handing over a modest $1 million budget increase for the Department of Education’s student data privacy work, including the Privacy Technical Assistance Center (PTAC).

For the uninitiated, PTAC is a one-stop shop for everything student data privacy-related. This small office of experts, led by Chief Privacy Officer Kathleen Styles, produces student data privacy and security guides, best practice resources, legal compliance guidance, policy toolkits, contracting checklists, one-on-one technical assistance and more. Ask anyone responsible for student data privacy or security activities how they feel about PTAC, and you’ll hear a level of appreciation rarely associated with government entities.

Despite years of growing demand for privacy and security services, this is the first year that an increase in PTAC’s existing budget has been requested by the Obama Administration and made it to the Hill. This request amounts to a mere drop in the federal budget bucket. Congress’s recent budget deal has made some additional funding available for education, and some of this funding can – and should – be allocated to fulfill this request.

Like any topic in education, it is rare to achieve consensus on data privacy approaches among the field’s diverse stakeholders. (Just take a look at the myriad federal bills and more than 185 student privacy bills introduced in states this year if you have any doubt).

But this fall, a coalition of 17 different education organizations, including the Data Quality Campaign, signed on to a letter advocating together for this increase in PTAC’s budget. When the Council of Chief State School Officers, StudentsFirst, the American Federation of Teachers, Common Sense Kids Action, the Software and Information Industry Association, and Stand for Children all agree, we’re on to something.

Granting the Department of Education this small budget increase provides a concrete, discrete way for Congress to support what works.

When education leaders, educators, and families know that student data are secure and kept private, they can trust that it will be used to support students and schools. Therefore anyone who cares about education data must also care about data privacy. With their recent legislative proposals, members of Congress have been saying that they care about student privacy. Now they have a chance to prove it.

Paige Kowalski is vice president of policy and advocacy for the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit that advocates for the effective use of education data.

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