A federal lawmaker with an interest in student-privacy issues has asked the U.S. Department of Education a series of pointed questions about its ability to protect data from being distributed to commercial providers without the consent of families.
Sen. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, in a letter written to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, questions whether changes in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act have given schools too much authority to share student data with companies without parents' consent.
Markey told the secretary that he recognizes the benefits for schools in collecting and analyzing students' academic records, as a means to improve their achievement.
But he also voiced worries that a growing number of school districts are "outsourcing data storage functions to private companies," and that federal law might not be doing enough to regulate that flow of information.
"[D]isclosure of such information, which may extend well beyond the specific private company hired by the school district to a constellation of other firms with which the district does not have a business relationship," Markey wrote, "raises concerns about the degree to which student privacy may be compromised."
Markey asked Duncan to explain the agency's position on student privacy and data issues in a number of areas, including how regulatory changes made to FERPA in 2008 and 2011 affect schools' ability to outsource scheduling, data management, and other functions.
"Did the department perform any analysis regarding the impact of these changes on student privacy?" Markey asks. "If yes, please provide it. If not, why not?"
The lawmaker also asks if the department has assessed whether various types of information are shared by schools with third party-vendors, such as contact information, and disciplinary and attendance records.
A former, longtime member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Markey's been a player in attempting to craft policies to protect student data for year. He was a co-author of the Children's Online Privacy and Protection Act, which became law in 1998.
A spokesman for the Education Department, Cameron French, said the agency had received Markey's letter and was reviewing it.
French said that the department has taken a number of steps to protect student privacy, and that its issuance of regulations in 2011 was a move in that direction. He added that data reported to the department is aggregated, and does not include individual children's records.
"As Secretary Duncan has stated before, the use of data is vital to ensuring the best education for our children," French told Education Week in a statement. "However, the benefits of using data must always be balanced with the need to protect the privacy of kids."]
[UPDATE (Oct. 24): This post was updated with comments from the Education Department.]