State longitudinal data systems (SLDSs)4 facilitate the management and linkage of student data records between state education and workforce agencies as well as other SLDS partners. These data systems are highly regulated by both state and federal legislative bodies and agencies to ensure they protect the privacy and security of the students represented by this data. Without legal support at both the state and federal levels, SLDSs would not be able to operate for multiple reasons. Local education agencies (LEAs)5 and other education institutions would not provide student data records to any entity that is legally not allowed to receive these data records. Additionally, state legislative bodies must deem SLDS development to be a critical initiative for the data system to receive required resources such as capital and labor. SLDSs that fail to receive this support will not have the political or financial backing to improve their capabilities or functions, and likely will be unable to operate at all.
The United States Congress deemed the protection of individual U.S. citizens’ privacy to be of the upmost importance to the nation’s security. At the federal level, the U.S. Congress passed the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)6 in 1974 to protect the privacy of student education records. This act was originally passed to regulate the distribution and protection of physical student records held by LEA, postsecondary education institutions, and state education agencies. With the advent of the internet and the digital era, FERPA has been altered to encompass the management and distribution of digital student education records. SLDS managers and partners must always act in accordance with FERPA standards, failure to do so culminates in the termination of federal funding as well as strong legal action taken against the violators. Individual FERPA violators can receive up to a two hundred fifty thousand dollar fine and five-year incarceration sentences per violation.
State legislative bodies also regulate SLDS managers and partners to ensure that these parties operate and utilize the data system in ways deemed appropriate by the state’s constituents. SLDSs cannot operate without the approval of their state legislators due to the proprietary nature of the student data records they contain and link. Alabama7 provides an example of this scenario. The Alabama legislature chose not to pass statutes requiring the development and management of an SLDS. For this reason, an SLDS was never successfully built in Alabama and there are currently no tangible plans in place to change this outcome. The Alabama legislature made this decision for two reasons, privacy concerns regarding student level data and disagreement over the importance of SLDSs in relation to other education initiatives. Privacy concerns are typically the largest concern presented by state legislatures regarding SLDSs. Data breaches allowed by inadequate data management can expose thousands of students’ private information to the public and other more nefarious agents.
Washington’s SLDS 8 provides yet another example of how a state may address privacy concerns. While Washington’s state legislature has enacted privacy codes as stringent as any in the nation, the SLDS’s governing body, the Education Research and Data Center (ERDC)9, has a legislative mandate to use the system to conduct analyses of P20W10 data and make these cross-sector data-analyses available to all partners that contribute data records, and to provide information that helps students, parents, teachers, administrators and public policy makers make decisions that improve student learning and workforce to all those prepared to abide by the relevant privacy statutes.
Yet another example is the SLDS in Arkansas11. Arkansas’s TrustEd12 system operates under a centralized governance model and exemplary in its structure, management, dashboard and access by stakeholders and outside researchers. The system benefitted from three separate NCES grant funding rounds13 (2006, 2009 and 2009 ARRA) While the SLDS management, but also enjoyed broad support from the state legislature. The Arkansas SLDS was one of only a handful of systems earning perfect scores from the Data Quality Campaign14 for both state actions and essential elements in 2011. By 2015 much of this had changed as a change in leadership at the state level resulted in decreased legislative support and increased access constraints resulting from privacy concerns. The Student Personal Information Protection Act (AR Code 6-18-109)15 and a general statute expressly prohibiting the provision of any personal identification to the US Department of Education, education program provider, research partner, government assistance organization or program monitor without consent. The Arkansas data privacy code16 extends well beyond FERPA requirements and renders the state’s SLDS useless to any party outside of the stakeholder group. Even then, the system’s current constraints and lack of ongoing support have resulted in significantly diminished utility.
Data breeches can even occur if data is managed in line with best practices, due to the constant innovation and improvement of hacking techniques. State legislatures also must decide if the development of an SLDS is the best use of resources to improve educational outcomes. Many states have inadequate budgets to fund all initiative that may improve education outcomes, due to this reality, many initiatives fail to receive state funding. SLDS managers and partners must prove legislative bodies that the development of an SLDS is critical to improving student outcomes. While many state legislatures passed initial funding supports for these SLDSs, sustainable funding supports have proven harder to obtain due to the government spending cuts towards education and the growing number of education initiatives vying for government dollars.
5 Local Education Agency (LES); https://www.ed.gov/race-top/district-competition/definitions
6 Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act; https://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/fpco/ferpa/index.html
8 Washington state profile, State Longitudinal Data Systems Research; http://slds.rhaskell.org/state-profiles/washington
10 A P20W style SLDS includes student and unit-level public education and workforce data inclusive of pre-school through 20 years of public education and labor force data (wages, industry classification, etc.); https://nces.ed.gov/programs/slds/p20w.asp
13 Arkansas SLDS Program NCES grant funding; https://nces.ed.gov/programs/slds/state.asp?stateabbr=AR
14 Data Quality Campaign (DQC); https://dataqualitycampaign.org/why-education-data/state-progress/
15 Arkansas Student Personal Information Protection Act (AR Code 6-18-109); http://law.justia.com/codes/arkansas/2015/title-6/subtitle-2/chapter-18/subchapter-1/section-6-18-109
16 Data Privacy, Arkansas Department of Education; http://www.arkansased.gov/divisions/research-and-technology/data-privacy