Expand Florida education database to improve student outcomes

April 18, 2013 

Florida has long been a national leader in the collection of education data as a key to improving student achievement, and new Senate legislation takes another step forward in learning from this information.

Sponsored by Bradenton Sen. Bill Galvano, the bill requires the state to establish a single online database about students, teachers, schools and districts from kindergarten through postsecondary education.

While parent organizations object, Galvano cautions that his measure merely establishes protocols for data the state Department of Education already collects. His Education Accountability measure, SB 878, gained unanimous approval in the upper chamber last week.

The House version, however, no longer contains language on database protocols, though the Senate provision could be written into final legislation in conference committee.

Worried parents should take note: Rep. Erik Fresen, chair of the Education Appropriations Subcommittee, vowed that he would "not pass anything that compromises the security of student information, or goes beyond the research we need the data for."

Galvano expresses similar intentions. "... there are penalties stronger than those that exist under Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act for sale of that data," the Republican senator told Herald education reporter Erica Earl.

Still, despite assurances, parents such as Chrissy Blevio, founder and organizer of the Manatee chapter of Liberty in Action, are not convinced.

She told Earl that she believes the bill is "a dangerous invasion of privacy to Florida's children."

But the legislative staff analysis states the bill does not change the current process regarding how DOE provides data to researchers but formalizes procedures.

Furthermore, it restricts access to the database to authorized representatives and organizations as outlined under FERPA, the federal law that protects the privacy of student records.

FERPA only permits disclosure of student education records to organizations conducting studies on behalf of schools, districts, colleges and universities. Access must be requested. Those studies can be designed to develop tests, administer student aid programs or improve instruction. Publication of those studies must protect the privacy and confidentiality of students and parents.

Currently, authorized researchers must comb through DOE's website to find links to the desired information, stored in myriad other sites. Galvano's bill streamlines access to data by creating a "single, customer-friendly" web-based interface that must also be secure.

FERPA also gives certain federal officials access to the information to conduct audits and evaluations of federal and state programs to ensure compliance with regulations.

The public will be able to access aggregated data -- not individual student information -- from the online K-20 information warehouse.

By combining the K-12 data with postsecondary information, more detailed trends in education will become apparent and solutions can be sought where challenges are identified. The goal is simple and vital -- improve school grades and student achievement.

And we're confident Galvano's bill maintains student privacy.

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