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  1. Education

Florida Legislature grapples with decision on student, teacher records

Published Apr. 12, 2013

TALLAHASSEE — Schools have grades. Students have test scores. Teachers have performance metrics.

Education information abounds in Florida. But the deluge of data has state lawmakers asking: How much of that information should be public? And how available should it be?

This week, the state Senate passed a sweeping bill that would make student records more accessible by housing them in an expansive online database. The proposal has drawn fire from parent groups, who believe the measure will enable for-profit education companies to take advantage of individual student information.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in the House are moving to exempt teacher performance data from state public records laws for a three-year window. The controversial proposal comes weeks after the Florida Times-Union lost a lawsuit against the state to obtain the data, which will soon be tied to pay raises. The newspaper is appealing the decision.

Florida isn't alone in this quandary.

"This is a conversation that's happening across the country," said Aimee Guidera, the executive director of the Washington-based Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit that encourages policymakers to use data to improve student achievement. "The question is: How do we promote the use of data while building trust that the data will be kept private, secure and confidential?"

Different states have different solutions. Some have turned to private companies to manage their education data. Maryland has its own statewide system that contains individual-level student information.

Lawmakers in Oklahoma are considering new legislation that would beef up security.

Florida, which is considered a national leader in its use of education data, has several issues to address.

For starters, there is the student performance data that is used to evaluate teachers. That data will take on increased importance next year, when new teachers will see their pay raises tied to the evaluations.

The House is considering a bill that would prevent the public from accessing that data, which identifies individual educators, for a three-year period after the evaluation takes place. Rep. Janet Adkins, the Fernandina Beach Republican who presented the proposal last week, said the measure is meant to codify the ruling made in the Times-Union case.

Still, the First Amendment Foundation president opposes the move: "If teacher evaluations and teacher pay are going to be based on this information, then it needs to be made public in a timely fashion, not three years after the fact," Barbara Petersen said.

The Senate is moving in a different direction.

The upper chamber is considering a bill that would require the state Education Department to develop a "customer-friendly" online database to house information about students, teachers, schools and school districts.

Sen. Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican who is sponsoring the proposal, pointed out that the information is already collected by the Department of Education. Some of it is already online, he said.

The new proposal specifies that the information would be available only to "entities acceptable under FERPA," or the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law that limits any school's ability to release student information.

Other protections are written into the proposal, Galvano said. Organizations hoping to use the search engine would have to provide a "statement of purpose" to the state Department of Education. The department would also be required to maintain a list of organizations authorized to access the information.

"For the first time, we will have a real protocol," he said.

But the guarantee isn't enough for parents like Kathleen Oropeza, who cofounded an Orlando parent advocacy group, Fund Education Now. Oropeza pointed out that recent court rulings have paved the way for a wide range of organizations to access student information under FERPA, including some private education companies.

"Parents do not want every aspect of their child's personal information available upon request to some unknown profit-seeking venture willing to pay a fee," Oropeza said.

The Florida PTA and other grass roots parent groups have taken a similar stand against the bill. Still, the proposal won the unanimous support of the Senate on Wednesday.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat and former member of the Broward County School Board, said she was okay with the data warehouse, so long as "it is totally to show us where we are academically and how many kids are graduating."

The House had stripped similar language out of a proposal by Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples. But Rep. Erik Fresen, the Miami Republican who chairs the Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said the Senate language could potentially be written into the budget bills.

"I will not pass anything that compromises the security of student information, or goes beyond the research we need the data for," Fresen said.

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