Parents and public left out of the education policy loop

The following op-ed was published this weekend in the Salt Lake Tribune. It is a condensed version of a letter sent to members of the Administrative Rules Review Committee last week.

Utah law affirms that “the state’s role is secondary and supportive to the primary role of a parent.” If you’re a parent of a child in public school, this is more theory than practice—without your consent, and likely without your knowledge, the state is collecting large amounts of data on your child in a centralized database, and sharing that information with corporations and the federal government.

In 2009, former Governor Jon Huntsman signed an application to the U.S. Department of Education, the purpose of which was to obtain federal “stimulus” dollars. Without legislative authorization or guarantee, the Governor unilaterally made four assurances to the federal government—a required step in order to receive any money. Among other policy commitments, the assurances included a binding promise to “establish a longitudinal data system.” Within a year’s time, Utah had been showered with $742 million through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. 

Utah lawmakers—and thus the public at large—were left out of the loop. This trend continued, with the Utah State Office of Education receiving a $9.6 million grant to create the Utah Data Alliance—a conglomerate of state agencies managing the database with your child’s information. Their operations are not governed by state or federal law, but only by the promises made in the grant application and a “memorandum of understanding” between Alliance members.

Less than two weeks ago, the federal government gave the Utah State Office of Education another grant, this one for $6.5 million, along with a commitment for continuation grants in the following years. The purpose is to fund the required personnel and resources to manage this large database, provide your child’s personal data to Alliance members, and aggregate and supply the data to other interested parties. “Big data” is big business in the 21st century. Your child has been commoditized. 

Maybe you’re okay with that. But the point is that you weren’t consulted. You didn’t opt your child in to such a system. The legislature didn’t authorize it. And the State Board of Education—the governing body for the Utah State Office of Education—was also apparently left out of the loop; no formal vote was taken, and several members I spoke to were completely unaware that the Office was seeking the grant, and making more promises. 

Who’s driving the vehicle if so many people are asleep at the wheel? What privacy protections are there? What security measures are being taken? How can parents who object opt their children out of the system? These and many more important questions have not been addressed.

The Utah State Office of Education might reasonably argue that this database is incidental to its existing authority and work—a digital version of the paper processes they’ve used for decades to track each child’s progress and ability. This is an inadequate response; massive databases create central points of failure and abuse. Rogue employees can access and abuse, or leak, this highly detailed information. Malicious actors can hack and release the data. Make no mistake: the database is not merely an evolution of paperwork processes. It is a significant decision that should have been discussed and approved, subject to significant oversight to ensure privacy, parental approval, chain of custody, security, etc.

It appears that a pattern exists within the Utah State Office of Education, whereby policy is dictated not with input from parents and teachers, or even legislators or the State Board of Education, but by the Office’s seemingly insatiable appetite for federal grants, which inevitably come with significant strings. If strings are to exist, then they must be openly discussed, debated, and authorized—not agreed upon behind closed doors with the unscrutinized stroke of a pen. 

Elected officials have been circumvented and deemed largely irrelevant on this issue. Significant education policies are being adopted and implemented without public input. If the state is truly “secondary and supportive” to Utah parents, then it’s time to show the education bureaucracy who’s boss.